Kit for rapid assembly of lab-on-a-chip
5 August 2008
University of Michigan engineers engineers have developed a kit for
researchers to make custom microfluidic devices. These devices, often called a
'lab-on-a-chip' could lead to a new generation of instant home tests for
illnesses, food contaminants or toxic gases.
At present, due to the high cost and expertise needed, these portable,
efficient tools are often stuck in specialist researchers labs.
University of Michigan engineers are seeking to change that with a
16-piece lab-on-a-chip kit that brings microfluidic devices to the
The kit cuts the costs involved and the time it takes to make a
microfluidic device from days to minutes, says Mark Burns, a professor
in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering
who developed the device with graduate student Minsoung Rhee. To
construct a microfluidic device with the kit, assembly blocks are
selected from a standard set of components and then assembled to form
the desired network of channels that make up the device.
"In a lot of fields, there can be significant scientific advances
made using microfluidic devices and I think that has been hindered
because it does take some degree of skill and equipment to make these
devices," Burns said. "This new system is almost like Lego blocks. You
don't need any fabrication skills to put them together."
A lab-on-a-chip integrates multiple laboratory functions onto one
chip just millimetres or centimetres in size. It is usually made of nano-scale
pumps, chambers and channels etched into glass or metal. These
microfluidic devices that operate with drops of liquid about the size of
the period at the end of this sentence allow researchers to conduct
quick, efficient experiments. They can be engineered to mimic the human
body more closely than the Petri dish does. They're useful in growing
and testing cells, among other applications.
Burns' system offers 6x6mm blocks etched with different arrangements
of grooves that researchers can use to make a custom device by sticking
them to a piece of glass. Block designs include inlets, straight
channels, Ts, Ys, pitchforks, crosses, 90-degree curves, chambers,
connectors (imprinted with a block M for Michigan), zigzags, cell
culture beds and various valves. The blocks can be used more than once.
Most of the microfluidic devices that life scientists currently need
require a simple channel network design that can be easily accomplished
with this new system, Burns said. To demonstrate the viability of his
system, he successfully grew E. coli cells in one of these
Burns believes microfluidics will go the way of computers, smaller
and more personal as technology advances. "Thirty or 40 years ago,
computing was done on large-scale systems. Now everyone has many
computers, on their person, in their house…. It's my vision that in
another few decades, you'll see this trend in microfluidics," Burns
said. "You'll be analyzing chicken to see if it has salmonella. You'll
be analyzing yourself to see if you have influenza or analyzing the air
to see if it has noxious elements in it."
A paper giving more details of the new system, Microfluidic
assembly blocks, has been published in the journal Lab on a
Chip. It is available online at: