Microfluidics technology development is entering a new phase, according to Andreas Manz, Ph.D., head of research at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, Saarbrücken, Germany. Now that the initial patents covering the fundamental technology have expired, companies can more easily and cost effectively acquire, develop, and apply microfluidics without the risk of intellectual property infringement. Recent patents have focused on more specialized technology.
Examples of growing industry interest and activity in the microfluidics field include Bio-Rad Laboratories’ recent acquisition of the microfluidic technology startup QuantaLife for $162 million. QuantaLife brought to market its droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) genetic analysis platform.
Sony acquired Micronics at the end of September, which develops point-of-care diagnostic devices for use in disease detection, treatment monitoring, and blood testing. And just weeks earlier, PerkinElmer announced that it planned to acquire Caliper Life Sciences for $600 million. Caliper develops microfluidic-based molecular imaging and detection technologies for the life science research, diagnostics, and environmental markets.
Dr. Manz has been working with microfluidics technology since the early 1990s, developing miniaturized capillary electrophoresis, liquid chromatography, and PCR devices, for example, to achieve higher-throughput chemical analysis, as well as advancing the development of multilayer chip devices for the study of biochemical activity at the single-cell level.
Microfluidics applications in drug discovery have typically focused on miniaturization of bioassays traditionally done in microwell plates to support a variety of DNA-based genomic or proteomic studies. Dr. Manz believes there is growing interest and research on the use of microfluidic devices for cell-based studies.
In contrast to the molecular diagnostics arena—in which “I have seen little that is revolutionary about microfluidics in the sense of obtaining fundamentally new information,” Dr. Manz points to new work from the fields of cell biology and tissue engineering.
The ability to mimic the three-dimensional cellular environment on a microchip and to be able to study rapid cell-signaling events, cell biology, and the changes that may result from exposure to pathogenic stimuli or therapeutic compounds at the tissue or single-cell level, could generate new types of information that have not been obtainable with existing assay strategies.
For diagnostic applications, and particularly diagnostic devices that could be used in Third World regions, field settings, or for emergency response such as in pandemics, Dr. Manz sees a shift away from traditional microfluidics and toward portable, reagent-free, miniaturized equipment that is not chip-based and does not rely on droplet technology.
The emphasis at present is on developing simpler, highly automated devices with small footprints, in which sample loading through data acquisition is achieved in a hands-free manner. He describes, for example, advances in technology such as paper microfluidics, which uses paper-like materials that can be structured and modified to control properties such as porosity, flow, and hydrophobicity.
Dr. Manz describes a fundamental “limitation” of microfluidics technology, which is driven by the commercial interests of instrument manufacturers. At the same time, this limitation is one of the key advantages of microfluidics: its mass-transport properties allow for high-throughput chemical analysis on the surface of a chip—theoretically, throughput up to millions of assays/second.
However, companies that have developed the instruments that are designed to perform microplate-based assays have not embraced the microfluidics technology being developed in academia and are not likely to replace their well-established product lines, in Dr. Manz’ view.
Consider the market for PCR technology, for example. While PCR has continued to advance, the basic approach for performing PCR has not changed substantially, and the cost of the basic instrumentation needed to perform PCR has remained relatively stable, Dr. Manz notes.
Other factors inhibiting broader applicability of microfluidics in bioanalytics is the lack of end-to-end automation, the need for training to achieve optimal results using current microfluidics techniques and devices, the relative complexity of the systems, and the challenges involved in integrating multiple single-function chips into a multifunctional microfluidic system.