March 07, 2010
New Microfluidic Device 1000 Faster Than Robots

Faster and faster in biological sciences.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 2, 2010 Fictional candy maker Willy Wonka called his whimsical device to sort good chocolate eggs from bad, an eggucator. Likewise, by determining what enzymes and compounds to keep and which to discard, scientists are aiming to find their own golden eggs: more potent drugs and cleaner sources of energy.

Toward that end, Harvard researchers and a team of international collaborators demonstrated a new microfluidic sorting device that rapidly analyzes millions of biological reactions. Smaller than an iPod Nano, the device analyzes reactions a 1,000-times faster and uses 10 million-fold less volumes of reagent than conventional state-of-the-art robotic methods.

The scientists anticipate that the invention could reduce screening costs by 1 million-fold and make directed evolution, a means of engineering tailored biological compounds, more commonplace in the lab.

The tubes in it are narrower than a human hair. Imagine future generations of microfluidic devices usable by non-scientists. Wondering if you have a bacterial or viral infection? You'll have a device that will figure that out for you without your going to a doctor. Parents who want to forecast how fast little Jill or Johnnie will get over a fever will be able to get an instant diagnosis and probable duration of each cold and sore throat.

While personal microfluidic devices will be pretty cool and very useful the biggest benefits from microfluidics will come in research labs. Microfluidics is starting to do for biological sciences what silicon microcircuitry has been and continues to do for the computer industry (i.e. massive fast moving revolution lasting decades). I am optimistic about the development of full body rejuvenation therapies mostly due to advances in microfluidics and other biological assay and manipulation microdevices. They work faster with higher sensitivity, cost less, and achieve a much higher degree of automation.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 March 07 07:11 PM  Biotech Microfluidics

David A. Young said at March 8, 2010 9:45 AM:

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but what this article -- and the one before it -- suggest to me is that we may be in the beginning of the era of "Peak Medical Costs." A lot of the most important new technology is still being developed, so it will probably be some time before we see significant cost reductions, but I think it's likely we'll start seeing a decrease in the growth of medical costs much sooner. I believe the costs for medical care that we see projected out to mid-century time frames will prove to be too large by orders of magnitude. Politics and rent-seeking will certainly delay this much is the big uncertainty.

Randall Parker said at March 8, 2010 8:28 PM:


I think we need a change in financial incentives to cause "Peak Medical Costs". As costs get too high I expect the incentives will change. Whether it happens due to price controls or real market forces remains to be seen.

My guess is that the advances that will cause costs to drop will come much later than the point where medical costs become too high to afford. I'd like to be wrong about that. I want rejuvenation therapies Real Soon Now. But I do not expect Actuarial Escape Velocity to be achieved in this decade and probably not in the 2020s either.

Peter Hewkin said at March 18, 2010 6:39 AM:

This technology is maturing and many of the core patents will soon lapse, the barriers are mostly to do with economics now with insurance companies saying 'not only must the chip be cheaper but its diagnosis at point of care must be at least as good as what we get by sending the sample back to the lab'. One day this will change and people will accept a lower cost, lower certainty diagnosis because it is convenient to use (in the home or surgery).

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