The boom in microfluidic total analysis systems is spurred by the use of microscale fabrication techniques. In 1999, Agilent Technologies introduced a coin-size device called “LabChip” to the market for the analysis of DNA. The timing of the market release of this device was remarkable as it benefited from the hype of the Human Genome Project. The LabChip has drawn considerable attention from both academia and industry. As a result, the shrink of chemistry labs into coin-sized microfluidic devices has evolved more from technological push than from market pull. Technology-driven development pathway brought challenges, especially for the clinical integration of microfluidic devices due to the lack of standards, focus, and communication between academia and clinics.
A recent Lab on a Chip paper from Martyn Boutelle’s Lab addresses this issue. The authors identify the problem from a well-addressed microdialysis perspective. They state that “taking a microfluidic system into clinical environment brings lots of challenges, not least that during setups and developments the very low the flow rates used in combination with microdialysis means that leaks and misdirection of flows are very hard to see.” The authors define the most significant challenge as the development of a device that’s robust enough to be used by and provide enough information to, the clinical team without micromanagement by experts.
The authors attack the problem by creating a sensor-based online system associated with electrochemical measurement, which would be able to analyze the sample in a miniaturized platform continuously. They developed the microfluidic sensors and chip, but they wanted to increase the use of their technology in real-world scenarios by non-experts, so they looked into ways to introduce more precision and control to the platform. The authors combined their technology with LabSmith microfluidic components and constructed breadboard like layouts for typical lab protocols. The authors add that “the main surprise was the ability to bring the rigor of an analytical laboratory into unusual places such as abattoirs, surgical theatres and public transport!”
In this work and the previous work of the authors, the performance of 3-D printed chips was compared to the PDMS ones. The authors found that PDMS material is much more vulnerable than the 3D print outs when frequently handled. The sensor attached to the chip is programmed to calibrate in regular intervals (e.g., every three hours) in single or multiphase flow conditions. Authors describe the advantage of the system that ”remote access to the scripts allows interaction with the system without the requirement of a highly skilled person being right next to it, which in the context of surgical theatres and hospital wards is a distinct advantage. If the codes and scripts are available to less skilled personnel, they are still able to interact and use the system and by making the system more user-friendly a wider audience and more enthusiasm is generated for the product, increasing interest, uptake, and use.”
The authors would like to improve the platform further by making it wearable since it already has grounds for such an operation with wireless sensors. The next thing to be improved in the system is the feed. At this moment, the syringes have to be regularly refilled. This might not be a problem in the laboratory; however, monitoring can last for days in a clinical setting, and periodically refilling the syringes may lead to noise artifacts. Another improvement could be the ease of operation and troubleshooting when, e.g., a tubing becomes blocked in the middle of the measurement when the user is short on space and time.
Lastly, the authors think that this pioneering platform can help shape the future in the market by giving more people access to an area of science that was previously highly skilled, whilst maintaining analytical robustness. This will be the start to break the barrier between academia-made devices and clinical settings.