Student’s Winning Invention Enables “Animal on a Chip”
As a boy, Wei Gu taught himself to write computer software for the electronic games he liked to play. Today, the University of Michigan senior uses his programming skills for slightly loftier pursuits: he writes computer instructions that direct cells and other fluids through channels on a microchip, so that those cells think they’re in the body.
Gu developed a novel approach to switching microfluidic channels on an off, relying on an off-the-shelf system of raised pins used to help Braille readers interpret computer displays.
The research earned Gu a first place in the undergraduate category of the Collegiate Inventor’s Competition in October, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has accepted a paper on the findings, “Computerized Microfluidic Cell Culture Using Elastomeric Channels and Braille Displays,” for publication. Gu is first author on the paper.
In Gu’s device, the pins that help Braille readers feel raised dots representing letters are used instead to pinch and un-pinch parts of the microfluidic plumbing, changing the course that fluids can take through the device.
Shuichi Takayama, Gu’s advisor and an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, says the first application of the invention will be for an “animal on a chip” that might be used for clinical diagnostics, drug development or biosensors. There are many potential applications, and the intellectual property has been protected.
“We are exploring many options for commercialization,” said Karen Studer-Rabeler, associate director for new business development in the Office of Technology Transfer. “This is certainly something where you could see that happening.”
Takayama envisions tiny wells of living tissue, each a different sort–muscle, bone, lung and so on–connected by a tiny circulatory system, all packaged in a system about the size of a big calculator. It wouldn’t be quite the same as a laboratory mouse, but functionally, it may come close enough to approximate the real thing.
“It may be ethically more palatable than using lab animals, and most importantly, you could use real human cells to run these tests,” Takayama said.
For now, the microfluidic channels are 300 microns wide and 30 microns high.
“To allow cells to work like real tissues, we don’t want the channels to be too big or too small,” Takayama said. The current design has channels of about 10 to 20 cells wide.
In its initial state, several distinct wells on the device would be seeded with undifferentiated stem cells, the blank slates of biology. Each of these wells would then be given the right chemical mixture, including hormones and nutrients, to signal the stem cells to develop into a particular kind of tissue.
Once the cells have developed distinct identities, the microfluidic channels would be rerouted to allow the different wells of living tissue to exchange fluids. Then, a drug candidate might be flowed through the device to see what effect it has on different kinds of tissue.
Gu believes that microfluidic machines could become powerful diagnostic tools for doctors, or allow patients to monitor their health more precisely than is possible today.
“I think in the future these devices will be as common as cell phones or laptops,” Gu said.