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Microfluidics in Life Science: Moving Forward by Looking Back

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Looking back

The field of microfluidics has been around for over two decades now. After emerging in the 1980s and forming an important component of items as diverse as inkjet printer cartridges and micro-propulsion devices, the benefits of microfluidics were soon harnessed for use in life science. However, after a vast amount of initial interest, hype and funding, the widespread practical use of microfluidics in the life sciences failed to materialise. In fact, very few practical microfluidic devices actually made it to market and the field remained pretty much stagnant for over a decade until the early 2000s. 

However, since then the field has been reenergised with the uptake and practical use of Lab-on-a-Chip (LOAC) technologies in a wide variety of different laboratories. With areas such as point of care diagnostics leading the charge, its rapid introduction into rapidly evolving next generation instrumentation such as massively parallel DNA sequencers is evidence suggesting that microfluidics/Lab-on-a-Chip technologies may finally realise their potential.

Moving LOAC technologies forward

There have been a number of advancements in materials and technologies over the last decade that have enabled the development of LOAC technologies as singular products, as well as facilitating their integration into various types of research instrumentation. Advances in the fabrication of microfluidic devices, for example the move from glass and silicon to polymer based materials, have dramatically lowered the cost and increased the flexibility of fluidic system design. 

Perhaps most significantly, the LOAC community has learnt from the mistakes made during the 80s and 90s in terms of successful component integration, product focusing and device manufacture. LOAC device development at this time, particularly within molecular biology, focused on the development of individual components, forgetting about the practical aspects of device integration, sample preparation and reagent stability. This led to a number of high profile failures during device commercialisation, where the individual components proved to be incompatible with one another, leaving the subsequent system ill equipped for widespread use. As a result the field now places real emphasis on developing coherent and integrated LOAC devices with a defined project goal. 

Additionally the development of 'microfluidic foundries' and the associated design, fabrication and machining services that they provide, is driving the uptake of microfluidic devices in general laboratory environments. Historically, most laboratories considered the integration of microfluidic systems into their workflows and processes difficult, due to the lack of internal expertise and experience available. However outsourcing device development and manufacturing to these foundries means that researchers are able to design fluidic devices that suit their needs and project goals, without the need for large scale investment in equipment and personnel.

The future

It is clear that microfluidic technologies will play an important role in the future of the life sciences. The completed commercialisation of microfluidic technologies still remains difficult, but the recent successes in device development for molecular and clinical diagnostics, as well as the insertion of microfluidic technology into instrumentation has shown that it can be done. Devices that allow patients to conduct self-testing are drawing nearer and the increasing need to cut costs in basic research will mean that assay miniaturisation will become increasingly popular. Regardless, researchers working in the field must remember to think about the goals of the project, how the device will integrate into an overall workflow and the real-world benefits provide by the system, designing a product that meets research and/or diagnostic needs. As such, they must be careful not to slip back into developing systems that are theoretically sound but do not work practically. 

Currently, the future is bright for microfluidics... as long as the industry continues to learn from the lessons of its past.

Seeing the change

At SELECTBIO we have been running a number of LOAC meetings globally over the last five years and have been fortunate enough to see the changes and developments in the field. That's why we are delighted to remain at the cutting edge of the microfluidics industry by working with organisations such as the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology. As part of their 20th anniversary celebrations, we'll be co-producing the Lab-on-a-Chip Asia meeting in Singapore. With an opportunity to have a look around Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology laboratories, it will be a fantastic chance for delegates to get a feel for how far the discipline has progressed. 

Does the future of LOAC technologies sound interesting? If so, you can find out more by viewing the conference agenda for the LOAC Asia meeting. 

If you can't make it to Singapore but would still like an opportunity to network and hear from some of the industries thought leaders, then take a look at our other LOAC shows - we hold meetings all across the globe, including Europe, India and North America!