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The Microfluidics Industry is Already Looking for the Next Killer Application

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The microfluidic device market is said to be worth US$2.5 billion in 2017, and is estimated to reach US$5.8 billion by 2022 (2017 edition - Yole Développement). To learn more about the evolution of microfluidics and some of the applications driving this growth, we spoke to Sébastien Clerc and Dr Marjorie Villien, Yole Développement.

Historically, what have the main applications of microfluidic technologies been?

Microfluidic technologies have been around for a while: the first commercially available systems appeared in the 1990s with companies such as Agilent Technologies, Caliper Life Sciences and iSTAT Corporation. Until the mid-2000s, microfluidic technologies were used for the automation of relatively simple assays (i.e. immunoassays, blood chemistry and blood gases). In the second half of the decade, Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) found new possibilities enabled by microfluidics with several companies offering performant solutions that contributed to driving down the cost of sequencing. Then, after 2010, point-of-care (PoC) testing began reaping microfluidic technologies’ full benefits. In particular since 2014/2015, molecular diagnostics for decentralized use has enjoy significant breakthroughs thanks to microfluidics.

What are the biggest evolving and upcoming applications likely to be?

The current booming application is clearly point-of-care testing: there is a strong demand for faster, cheaper and decentralized diagnostics. In particular, microfluidic technologies bring a high added value in the field of molecular diagnostics where complex nucleic acid amplification steps are required. Infectious diseases diagnostics are currently taking advantage of these developments, which will tomorrow enable new possibilities in oncology diagnostics (i.e. liquid biopsy and genetic testing). Organs-on-Chips are a promising application as well.

Why are microfluidic devices so suited to diagnostic applications, and what advantages can they offer over traditional techniques?

Microfluidic technologies offer significant advantages over classical methods. First, they allow performance of assays with reduced sample and reagent volumes along with precise liquid control: it limits the use of costly compounds while offering shorter times for liquid displacement, thermal transfers, and analysis. The ability to integrate and automate complex steps such as sample preparation is another strong advantage of such technologies in diagnostics applications. However, other applications also benefit from microfluidics: this is the case of drug delivery and flow chemistry. The latter enjoys better control of chemical reactions and improved safety during these reactions.

How long before we can expect to see some of the larger diagnostic industry leaders specialize in microfluidics? 

Microfluidics will be used only where the added value is high, when all the benefits aforementioned are gathered. Microfluidics is only a tool among others: you need to use the right tool for the right application. For this reason, I think none of the largest diagnostics players will ever specialize in microfluidics because they have very large portfolios and address applications where using microfluidics would make no sense as it would not bring any or enough advantages over current solutions. However, we start seeing large market players commercializing microfluidic-based solutions on specific market segments, often quite successfully. As an example, Roche’s and bioMérieux’s molecular diagnostics segments enjoy strong growth thanks to their cobas LIAT and FilmArray systems. These kinds of players often lag to adopt microfluidic solutions because they don’t want to take the technological risk internally: they proceed by acquisition of promising companies.

What role do you see microfluidics playing in the future of personalized medicine?

By driving down the cost of complex assays such as liquid biopsy, molecular diagnostics and NGS, microfluidics will enable to perform these tests at the patient’s scale instead of at a whole population’s scale. In combination with organs-on-chips, which can also use microfluidic technology, it will thus be possible in the future to tailor drug development and prescription to every single patient.

About the authors

Sébastien Clerc is a Medical Technologies Analyst at Yole Développement, the "More than Moore" market research and strategy consulting company. After graduating from Grenoble INP with a Biomedical Technologies Master degree, he completed his training with a Master degree in Innovation and Technology Management, during which he oversaw strategy and marketing.

As a Technology & Market Analyst, Dr Marjorie Villien is member of the Microfluidic & Medical Technologies (MedTech) business unit at Yole Développement, the "More than Moore" market research and strategy consulting company. She is a daily contributor to the development of MedTech activities with a dedicated collection of market & technology reports as well as custom consulting projects. After spending two years at Harvard, Marjorie served as a research scientist at INSERM in the field of MRI & PET imaging. She has spoken in numerous international conferences and has authored or co-authored 11 papers and 1 patent. Marjorie Villien is graduated from Grenoble INP and holds a PhD in physics & medical imaging.