You may not have heard of microfabrication, but it is used everywhere – including inside your smartphone, making computing devices small and portable. One specific application is microfluidic devices that handle fluids on the microscale, confined to spaces under a millimeter, directing them to move, mix, or divide. Ravi Selvaganapathy, associate professor of mechanical engineering at McMaster University, is using this technology to build a lab on a chip.
One of the benefits of lab-on-a-chip devices is speed. Imagine being in a doctor’s office and knowing that you may have an infectious disease. To get an accurate diagnosis, the lab analysis involved usually takes several days, or even weeks.
“Tuberculosis is a major disease,” says Selvaganapathy. “In the world, it kills about a million people annually. Diagnosis of tuberculosis takes about a month or so. What we are doing is developing techniques using microfluidics in order to do this analysis within 2 hours or so.”
When it comes to infectious diseases, a faster diagnosis can help prevent spreading it to other people. It also helps doctors prescribe the right drug to fight that particular infection.
“This is a powerful tool to have because most doctors these days are guessing based on the symptoms on what exactly is the drug that is most likely to work,” adds Selvaganapathy.
Beyond diagnostics, microfluidics is also being used to discover and test new drugs, with greater speed and sensitivity. In the future, microfluidics may even provide the foundation to build tissues and organs, where precise microfluidic channels might be used to provide the blood vessel network needed to deliver nutrients and remove waste.