Democratising microfluidics: getting ‘lab on a chip’ tools to where they’re needed most

The microfluidics team enjoying the Bristol harbourside

Democratising microfluidics: getting ‘lab on a chip’ tools to where they’re needed most

A team from the University of Bristol has developed a low-cost way of prototyping microfluidic devices, which could revolutionise access to medical diagnostic devices.

Microfluidic devices, used in ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technologies, can provide a rapid medical diagnosis at the point of care, as we’ve seen recently with the use of lateral flow devices to test for COVID-19.

Many people already use microfluidic devices to monitor health conditions like diabetes, and point-of-care diagnostic devices like home pregnancy tests have been available for home use for decades.

These devices can deliver results quickly, rather than waiting for full laboratory tests to confirm a diagnosis. However, they can be expensive to prototype and require specialist equipment.

Now, a novel technique developed by a team at the University of Bristol has the potential to accelerate the trial and development process of these diagnostic techniques at minimal cost, thereby allowing their easy implementation in parts of the world where fast diagnoses are desperately needed to improve public health and mortality.

Dr Robert Hughes, Harry Felton, and Andrea Diaz-Gaxiola have developed a fast, reliable, and cost-effective alternative for producing the soft-lithographic moulds used to make microfluidic devices, using simple 3D-printing techniques.

Previously, techniques for producing the lithographic moulds like those shown in this video, were time-consuming and expensive, but this new method could improve global access to the devices.

‘This development could put lab-on-a-chip prototyping into the hands of researchers and clinicians who know the challenges best, in particular, those in resource-limited settings, where rapid diagnostics may often have the greatest impact’ says the head of the study Robert.

Accessibility and ease of use was the key driver for this new technique.

Assembling 3D-printed microchannel scaffold
Assembling 3D-printed microchannel scaffold

‘It’s so simple, quick, and cheap that devices can be fabricated using everyday domestic or educational appliances at a negligible cost,’ explains Harry. ‘Researchers could use our technique to fabricate these devices with minimal additional expertise or resources required.’

The team can also see benefits beyond healthcare. By making this technique simple and accessible, they hope to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists as Andrea explains: ‘the playful click-and-connect approach also makes it suitable for hobbyists and educational use, to teach about microfluidics and the applications of lab-on-a-chip technology.’

Rob, Harry, and Andrea are now looking for potential collaborators in both research and education to help demonstrate the impact this technology could have by developing and supporting outreach activities, as well as applications for testing.

‘We hope that this will democratise microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip technology, help to advance the development of point-of-care diagnostics, and inspire the next generation of researchers and clinicians in the field.’

Funding info:

This research was a result of activities funded by the EPSRC via the BristolBridge initiative, pump-prime funding from the Faculty of Engineering, and work done as part of the Twinning of Digital-Physical Models during the Prototyping project, funded by the EPSRC.