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.
Dr. 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