Small tech stands to enable big advances for healthcare

7 Oct 2016

Prof Sabeth Verpoorte, professor of pharmaceutical analysis at the University of Groningen

Lab-on-a-chip systems are opening up new analyses for biology and medicine. Claire O’Connell spoke to Dr Sabeth Verpoorte ahead of a major conference hosted by DCU in Dublin.

Suppose you could walk into your doctor’s surgery, offer up a droplet of blood and within minutes get answers about an infection you might have, how you are responding to medication, or possibly even if you have cancer?

That’s the scenario envisaged thanks to ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology, which miniaturises analytical systems – in this case making them small and rapid enough to suit a lunchtime trip to the GP. The ‘lab-on-a-chip’ approach has even wider applications and some of them are already gathering ground, according to expert Prof Sabeth Verpoorte, who will be in Dublin for a major conference in the coming days.

“We are essentially miniaturising analysis,” said Verpoorte, professor of pharmaceutical analysis at the University of Groningen. “There has been miniaturisation in the communications and IT industries and, where those industries can handle a lot of information, we want to be able to generate information [with our devices].”


One technology that underpins the analysis of such tiny samples is microfluidics. “We put hair-fine channels in glass or silicon so we can confine really tiny volumes,” explained Verpoorte. “You make the systems more portable and that makes it easier to use them with tiny samples from patients.”

While such point-of-care diagnostics are not yet in wide use, the science is being developed and commercialised in that direction, and there are plenty of other applications too, noted Verpoorte, including mimicking ‘in vivo’ conditions to carry out experiments.   

 “The next big wave of microfluidics or lab-on-a-chip is using this technology to create tiny micro-environments where we can put cells in and make them think they are in the body,” she explained. “Then you can test response of cells to drugs and get an indication of how cells in the body might respond.”

That approach should help to de-risk the process of drug discovery and early testing, and Verpoorte is familiar with Irish company Cellix working in this space.

Her own research uses microfluidics to analyse how different tissues ‘talk’ to each other across time and space. “We have linked the intestine with the liver using our system,” she said.

“We have taken a very small intestinal slice and put that in one microfluidic compartment, then linked to another compartment that contains a very small liver slice, and we have watched how the intestine can regulate bile acid synthesis in the liver.”

An analytical chemist, Verpoorte is interested in using such ‘organ-on-chip’ models to look at how tissues respond to different molecules and environments.

Big conference on small tech

Over the coming days, Verpoorte will be in Dublin to take part in microTAS. One of the conference co-chairs, Prof Nicole Pamme from the University of Hull, was particularly interested in including an outreach event with demos and talks.

Verpoorte will give a public lecture to around 500 secondary school students to help them become more familiar with microfluidics and the lab-on-a-chip approach.  

As well as encouraging the next generation of scientists and engineers, Verpoorte would also like to see the lab-on-a-chip technology become easier to use, which would encourage wider adoption.

“This is one of the biggest challenges,” she said. “We need to make these techs more robust and easy to use by people who have not been trained to use them.”

Dublin City University (DCU) is hosting the international conference at the Convention Centre in Dublin, and it will be co-chaired by Prof Jens Ducrée from DCU.

“More than 1,100 people, mostly from Asia, the Americas and Europe, will attend . MicroTAS is considered the globally leading conference in this field of microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technologies,” he said.

“Ireland is the smallest country to ever run the microTAS conference since its inception in 1994.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication