June 12, 2003
Microfluidic Pump May Work As Insulin Delivery System

C.J. Zhong of Binghamton University has developed a microfluidic pump with no moving parts.

An assistant professor of chemistry at Binghamton since 1998, Zhong refers to the invention as a "pumpless pump" because it lacks mechanical parts. The pumping device is the size of a computer chip and could be fabricated at a scale comparable to an adult's fingernail. The device comprises a detector, a column filled with moving liquid, and an injector. The pumping action is achieved when a wire sends an electrical voltage to two immiscible fluids in a tiny column, perhaps as small as the diameter of a hair. Applying opposite charges to each side of the column causes the fluids to oscillate, thereby simulating the action of a pump. In some ways, the tiny system works like a thermostat: it takes a small sample, analyzes it, and tells other components how to act in response.

Zhong's device has significant potential in the treatment of diabetes because it is small enough to be inserted into and remain in the body where it would conduct microfluidic analysis, constantly measuring the need for insulin and, then, delivering precise amounts of insulin at the appropriate times. Because the detector would remain constantly at work, the device could eliminate the need for regular blood tests. Moreover, because less time would have passed between infusions of insulin, it is likely that insulin levels could be better maintained, without soaring and surging as dramatically as they sometimes do with present day treatment strategies. While his device is not an "artificial pancreas," Zhong says that it could well prove to be an integral part of a system that could someday become just that.

Diabetics are not the only ones who will benefit from the tiny pumping device, developed by Zhong and his research team of undergraduate and graduate students and a post-doctoral researcher. Any small, closed environment could benefit from tiny equipment that requires little fuel and produces no waste, he said.

Zhong sees the use of microfluidics to automate and shrink down the size of science laboratory equipment as offering substantial advantages.

Making lab equipment smaller and more efficient is one of Zhong's chief research goals. It's a goal he sees as highly achievable.

"Look at the computer," he said. "Twenty years ago, it was huge. Now it's tiny." He eventually hopes to create what he calls a "lab on a chip," by shrinking down all of the equipment in a chemistry lab to the size of computer chips. Smaller equipment not only uses fewer resources, he said, but creates less waste.

While microfluidics will provide much better methods to do drug delivery this will not be the source of the greatest benefits from microfluidics. The absolutely revolutionary benefit from microfluidics will be that it will speed up the rate of advance of basic biological science. The biggest problem holding back medical advance is not a need for better ways to deliver drugs or to monitor a person's body for signs of disease. Our biggest problem is that we do not know enough about how genes and cells and organisms operate. We need more automated, faster, and cheaper ways to take apart biological systems to understand how they work in much greater detail. The greatest promise of microfluidics is that it will be able to lower costs, speed up experiments, and make experiments far more sensitive.

A lot of people wonder why, after decades of trying, we still do not have a general cure for cancer. The reason is pretty simple: we do not have tools that are sophisticated enough to understand cancer and normal cells well enough to be able to target cancer cells with enough selectivity. Microfluidics will provide much better tools for taking apart biological systems whether the purpose is to study cancer, the aging process, or any other biological problem.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 June 12 03:14 PM  Biotech Advance Rates

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