Tiny Tool Could Make Massive Medical Difference

With microfluidics devices, diagnosing infectious diseases could take minutes, not days. And that's just one potential application.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

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.

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Prof. Ravi Selvaganapathy is an Associate Professor in mechanical engineering and the Canada Research Chair in Biomicrofluidics at McMaster University, Canada. He completed his B.S. in chemical and electrochemical engineering (1998) from Central Electrochemical Research Institute, India. He obtained his M.S and Ph.D in electrical engineering (2002) from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Sandia National Laboratories from 2003-2004 and joined McMaster University in 2005. His research interests are in the development of microfluidic devices for drug discovery, drug delivery, diagnostics and artificial organs. He has over 80 publications in journals and conferences, has written 5 invited book chapters and been issued 5 US patents related to MEMS/microfluidic devices. Some of his research has been featured in scientific media such as Popular Mechanics as wells as in mainstream media such as CBC News, and in newspapers across Canada. He also received the Early Researchers Award from the ministry of research and innovation in 2010 and has been named as a Rising Star in Global Health by Grand Challenges Canada in 2012.