Microfluidics and Biomarkers: From bench to bedside

IEEE: How are micro and nano technologies helping diagnose & treat disease?
AMY: I think micro and nano technologies have made a pretty big impact with a lot more to come. Certainly in the area of drug delivery, we’ve seen some major progress with different types of materials, different delivery methods, the ability to control dosage over a long period of time, and that, I would argue, is a pretty well established field.

Of course, there’s a lot of challenges yet to address. I think, from the standpoint of diagnostics (an area that I work in) I think that microfluidics has historically played a pretty large role. When you think about diagnostics, like the sort of a test strip assay, a home pregnancy test, or an HIV screening assay, these immuno-chromatic graphic assays are actually based on microfluidic principles, and those are some of the first diagnostic assays for screening that have been available for decades and have been very effective in many areas. I do think, however, that there are some more complex measurements that need to be made, and, in that way, I think that being able to take a sophisticated assay test, move it from a clinical laboratory setting, and into a lower-resource intensive setting, is going to depend quite a bit on engineering advances that we make with these micro, and nano-fluidic systems.

IEEE: Please describe some projects your lab is working on.
AMY: I’ll talk a little bit about projects that are focused on this translational aspect. We really have two major veins of research in the group, and they’re really inter-related. The first area really focuses on ‘how can we make advances at the bench,’ in the life-sciences laboratory, assisting basic scientists with being able to figure out what they need to know about proteins that may be good indicators of disease stage, or response to treatment, or a good prognostic value to help determine outcomes. And, so, these are really our life sciences instruments that we’re developing. On the flipside of that, the other end of the spectrum, we’re developing technologies for use in near-patient settings, what The National Institutes of Health calls the bedside, in this translational spectrum from bench to bedside.

In the area of life sciences instrumentation, we’ve been really working hard to implement very sophisticated measurements and multiple protein properties in instrumentation that is fast, and amenable to automation. That’s something that we’ve seen really spurs advances in this so-called genomics revolution. In essence, what we’re trying to do is to develop integrated, micro-and-nanofluidic systems to help really spur similar advances in what we believe could be a proteomics revolution. It’s really important, with an eye towards clinical medicine, and that’s simply because proteins are really the effectors of function. They are oftentimes implicated in disease state, as well as response to therapy, so the more we can know about an individual’s protein profile and, in particular, specific proteins that are tied to a disease state, the more we could potentially inform treatment and make more accurate diagnoses.

From the standpoint of the clinical – the bedside aspect of our work – we’re really looking at implementing new, confirmatory diagnostic assays; assays that can give a very high performance diagnosis for disease stage, such as HIV, and hepatitis C in a way that, right now, are relegated to laboratory settings, and are fairly intensive in terms of time. We think that microfluidic integration is going to be able to help us expedite those assays, but give them the same quality readouts that are currently available from confirmatory diagnostics.

IEEE: What characteristics do you look for in candidates for positions in your lab?
AMY: The different types of characteristics we would look for, I think, are both technical attributes of the individual, as well. So, we’re certainly seeking experts in engineering, in molecular biology, analytical chemistry, and material science, but we’re also seeking people who are just generally very curious, who are very motivated, and hard-working, and who are, maybe, in essence, somewhat stubborn. Persistent, not willing to easily give up on a problem, and to tie in their creativity, to try and figure out a good solution, and possibly better solutions that we’ve already devised in the lab.

IEEE: What can be done to encourage more women to enter the field of engineering?
AMY: I think engineering, especially in the United States, could benefit from encouragement of both men, and women, into engineering. Certainly, I think there’s an untapped reservoir of hard working, creative, intelligent women who could succeed in engineering, who are succeeding in engineering. So, certainly, it is a profession that’s just filled with a lot of challenges, but with those challenges comes a lot of fulfillment – really understanding that the work that you do each day has a tangible impact on the good of society, or our environment, depending on what area of engineering you’re in. I do think that, in many ways as engineers, we need to really emphasize, and highlight these really positive attributes of working in this field to young men and women, because, certainly, they have just brilliant ideas still locked in their heads and also just a potential to approach problems in a way that we’re not currently doing.