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Microfluidic devices for precision biological measurement

Dr. Stephen Quake and his group at Stanford University seek to bring the high precision of physics to the world of biology, using the biological equivalent of Large Scale Integration devices. In this interview, conducted at a recent IEEE conference, he shares his views on the benefits and risks of his work.

IEEEtv: How can micro/nano technology help in disease prevention and treatment?

Stephen Quake: We’re seeing enormous strides these days in the application of microtechnologies, particular microfluidics, in medicine. They’re used for diagnostic purposes, for the discovery of new pharmaceuticals, and people are starting to develop very clever ideas for implantable devices. We have been interested in bringing the ideas of precision measurement into biology, and that’s led to a number of technological innovations, including the first microfluidic, large-scale integration, which is to say, miniature devices that have up to tens of thousands of little valves on them, all kinds of other plumbing, as well as the first single-molecule DNA sequencing, and, through this research we found numerous applications of these measurement technologies to medicine – in drug discovery, in structural biology, in trying to develop cancer therapeutics, and in developing non-invasive, pre-natal diagnostics.

IEEEtv: What are the key challenges & risks in translating research into medical practice?

Stephen Quake: Well, there’s risk in any interesting research project, and if there were no risk, it wouldn’t be research. So, one of the big challenges today is how to bridge the very fine academic research that’s done, and take it across to commercialization. We’ve heard from many people this meeting about challenging, risky things they’re working on, and, and they’re each risking in different ways.

IEEEtv: Do you feel that the students are prepared for the technical/medical convergence needed in a lab like yours?

Stephen Quake: Well, certainly, curricula are changing quite a bit today, and I have half of my appointment at a bioengineering department, which is set up at the interface between disciplines, and all the students who come in are well versed in both biology, and engineering, and, so, certainly, the students in our department are well situated to work at this convergence.

IEEEtv: What advice can you offer students entering bioengineering programs?

Stephen Quake: The best advice I can give a new student entering bioengineering is to try to get a very broad sense of what’s going on across the whole field, and then pick an area in a fast-moving frontier that is interesting to them, and do their best to push that frontier a little farther out.


Contributor

Stephen QuakeDr. Stephen Quake, D.Phil., is a Professor of Bioengineering and of Applied Physics at Stanford University. He pioneered the development of Microfluidic Large Scale Integration (LSI), demonstrating the first integrated microfluidic devices with thousands of mechanical valves. In addition to his work at Stanford, he is a cofounder of both Helicos Biosciences and Fluidigm Corporation. Read more

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September 2013 Contributors

Stephen QuakeDr. Stephen Quake, D.Phil., is a Professor of Bioengineering and of Applied Physics at Stanford University. He pioneered the development of Microfluidic Large Scale Integration (LSI), demonstrating the first integrated microfluidic devices with thousands of mechanical valves. Read more

H. ChitsazH. Chitsaz is assistant professor of Computer Science at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI. He received his Ph.D. in Computer Science and M.S. in Mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Read more

Mathukumalli VidyasagarMathukumalli Vidyasagar is the Founding Head of the Bioengineering Department, University of Texas at Dallas. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, UK. Read more

Usmah KawoosUsmah Kawoos (S '05-M '09) received the Ph.D degree in biomedical engineering from Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Kawoos is currently working as a post-doctoral fellow at the Naval Medical Research Center, Silver Spring, MD. Read more

Xu MengXu Meng (S '08-M '13) received the Ph.D. degree in biomedical engineering in 2013 from Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. His research interests are the clinical application of microwave and RF in medical implants and telemedicine. Read more

Arye RosenArye Rosen (M '77-SM '80-F '92) received the Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Rosen currently holds an appointment as Academy Professor of Biomedical and Electrical Engineering in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems and Associate Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. Read more

Mikulas ChavkoMikulas Chavko received the PhD degree in Biochemistry from University of Veterinary Medicine in Kosice, Czechoslovakia. Currently, he serves as a Principal Investigator and Head of Blast Research in the Neurotrauma Department at the Naval Medical Research Institute. Read more