You may have already used microfluidics technology many times in your life. Inkjet printers spray tiny droplets of ink. 3D printers extrude molten polymer through microfluidic nozzles. Ink flows through pens using microfluidic principles. Asthma patients inhale fine droplets of medication mist from nebulizers. Pregnancy tests rely on urine flowing through microfluidic paper strips.
In scientific research, microfluidic technology can guide drugs, nutrients, or any liquid to very specific parts of organisms, allowing for more precise simulations of biological processes.
For example, researchers have trapped worms in channels and stimulated them with odors to understand neural circuits. Another group directs nutrients to specific areas of plant roots to observe different reactions to growth chemicals.
Other teams have designed microfluidic collectors that can physically capture rare tumor cells from blood. Large-scale microfluidic genetic chips provide the ability to sequence the human genome quickly, making personalized DNA testing like 23andMe possible. Without microfluidics, this would not be possible.
Microfluidics is crucial for ushering in a new, fast-paced, affordable era of drug delivery. Wearable devices for measuring substances in sweat during exercise, as well as implanted types of microfluidic devices for delivering cancer drugs directly to patient tumors, are among the new frontiers of biomedical microfluidics.
Researchers are developing complex, fascinating microfluidic systems called organ-on-a-chip designed to simulate various aspects of human physiology. In my own lab and others around the world, teams are developing chip-level tumor platforms for more efficient testing of cancer drugs. These avatars of patients will enable scientists to test new therapies in a way that costs less, incurs less suffering and avoids ethical issues associated with testing on animals or humans.
We first dissect cancer biopsies into thousands of tiny regular slices that remain alive. Due to their small size, we can use OEM microfluidics technology to capture small tumor fragments in multiple holes, one for each drug. These samples retain an appropriate tumor cell environment, which will allow us to better predict how drugs will work for specific individuals.
Imagine going to the doctor for a biopsy and within a week, the doctor uses our microfluidic device to figure out which drug is most effective in eradicating your tumor. That might be unrealized, but what we do know is that the future will be microfluidic.