The past ten years have seen microfluidics move into the domain of the everyday scientist. The commercial availability of plug-and-play equipment and application-specific set-ups have placed this transformative technology into the hands of non-experts, supporting research in food, cosmetics and drug delivery.
The ability to fine-tune the size of emulsion droplets, nanoparticles and liposomes offers distinct advantages over traditional batch manufacturing techniques and even enables production processes that were previously unachievable. In addition, increasing production by operating multiple microfluidics chips in parallel ensures consistent and predictable control at full manufacturing scale.
As the popularity of microfluidics continues to grow, laboratories are finding more and more applications for the technology,1 and scientists want to be able to buy specific solutions that they are confident will solve their application problem. It is important for manufacturers to enter into a dialog with their customers and establish a clear understanding of these laboratories’ current and potential future needs.
By keeping up-to-date with the latest microfluidic applications, manufacturers can ensure that they continue to provide everything laboratories need, whether it is individual components for an expert in the field or an off-the-shelf system for a less experienced user.
Giving scientists the tools they need
In the past, manufacturers would sell individual microfluidic components – chips, connectors and pumps – with no real idea of the customer’s intended application, but that has changed.
Today, there is far more interest in what scientists are doing, and a drive to understand their work and deliver the tools they need to move forward. Attracting scientists who are not microfluidics specialists is key to broader adoption of this technology, and one way of doing this is to provide ready-to-use systems tailored to a specific application containing everything necessary to get up and running quickly, and with the minimum of training.
This approach gives users confidence that manufacturers are listening and can offer a complete solution that will solve their problem, rather than simply giving them a set of components and leaving them to do it themselves; the scientists don’t need all the technical detail, they just need to know that the system will do its job.
At the other end of the scale are researchers who are very familiar with microfluidics. These users frequently want to specify a system for a particular application, or require an open platform that can be adapted as necessary to accommodate changing applications. In this situation, a bespoke package can be the answer, combining specified individual components into a customized system for applications ranging from drug development and microparticle generation to cell encapsulation.
A range of applications
Today, one of the fastest growing application areas is the encapsulation of drugs in biodegradable polymers to create a slow release medication.2 Unlike the ‘quick hit’ delivered by an oral painkiller, the drug is released from the polymer over a number of hours – or even days – providing a constant lower dose of the medication. This type of application requires a pump that is designed to deliver a very smooth, precisely controlled flow, ensuring reproducible production of consistently-sized droplets.
A more recent development that has also shown potential for drug delivery applications is liposome-based systems. Liposomes – an aqueous core surrounded by a hydrophobic membrane in the form of a lipid bilayer – can be loaded with hydrophobic and/or hydrophilic molecules. The lipid bilayer can fuse with other bilayers, such as the cell membrane, delivering the liposome contents to the site of action in the human body.
While the pharma industry is the main user of microfluidics technologies, small biotech companies and academics have also developed an interest in the technique. Researchers are extensively using microfluidics for single cell encapsulation, for example, exploring single cell RNA-Seq (scRNA-Seq)3 as a tool that allows simple and robust access to the transcriptomes of thousands of individual cells. This gives an unprecedented insight into tissues at the cellular level.
Another really ‘hot’ area in microfluidics at the moment is the continuing development of ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technologies, complemented by the organ-on-a-chip concept; a microfluidic chip that seeks to emulate organ functions.
Microfluidics is relevant to many other areas beyond these bioanalytical applications. Droplet production is, in effect, creating an emulsion, which can vary in particle size from nanoparticles through microemulsions up to large droplets. Products such as cosmetics, foodstuffs and paints are all emulsions, and so microfluidics has great potential in these and other industries. Cosmetics companies, for example, Chanel,4 are known to be experimenting with the use of microfluidics on a lab scale. For them, the next step will be process scale-up to enable the manufacture of larger quantities of products, which can be achieved by parallel processing using multiple microfluidics systems.
Microfluidics has come a long way since the first publications in the 1980s. Companies such as Dolomite Microfluidics have not only developed easy to assemble individual components – including pumps, chips and sensors – but also complete systems, making the technology more accessible to a wider range of researchers, expert and non-expert alike.
This has enabled scientists to spend more time developing novel applications for microfluidics, rather than concentrating on enhancing the technology.
As the popularity of the technique continues to grow, the possible applications appear endless.
For more information, visit https://www.dolomite-microfluidics.com/
1. Gilligan, M and Drobot, M. It all comes with chips. Laboratory News Sept 2017, 27-28.
2. Gray, R and Abdulkin, P. Taking a Microfluidics Approach to Drug Delivery. Drug Development & Delivery June 2018 18 (5), 38-40.
3. Rey, CM. Preparing scRNA-seq for the Clinic & the Field. Clinical OMICs May/June 2018, 29.
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