ITF: Connecting biology with microsystems

In an exclusive series of blogs, imec’s science writers report from the International Technology Forum (ITF) in Brussels. This year, ITF’s theme was “It’s a changing world. Let’s make a sustainable change together”. More info: www.itf2012.com

“If we succeed in connecting biology with microsystems, we can revolutionize life sciences,” begins Peter Peumans, department director bio-nano electronics of imec. And it’s high time for a revolution. Just look at the stethoscopes doctor’s are using today and the microscopes that labs are using and compare this to a 100 years ago. It hasn’t changed much.

“The perfect example of connecting biology to microsystems is the bioreactor we are developing,” explains Peumans. He shows a chip with a dense array of electrodes onto which a cell culture can be applied. “The electrodes allow to measure activity of single cells. Moreover, they also allow to create a local voltage to the cell which results in nanosize pores in the membrane. In this way, the patch clamp technique can be automated and performed simultaneously on hundreds of cells. These smart bioreactors can be used to study neurons or cardiac cells or even to culture stem cells. The production of stem cells holds a high promise for a lot of diseases,” emphasizes Peumans.

He also shows three other promising examples of technologies that connect biology and microsystems. The first one is a neuroprobe with close to 250 electrodes. This new generation of probes will be a key asset to brain research.

Another imec research topic Peumans mentions is the high speed cell inspection platform which is based on microscopes on chip. These microscopes don’t use any sort of optics. “The platform allows to take microscopic images of cells. Based on these images, the cells are classified and sorted by using a fast microfluidic switch that routes the cells into a chosen channel,” says Peumans. Such inspection chips could be used for the diagnosis of cancer in a very early stage.

And finally Peumans shows the promise of high-throughput molecular analysis by marrying biology and microsystems. He is convinced that high-throughput sequencing will become an important diagnostic tool in the future by making it low cost, fast and easy to use. “We have developed a chip with a dense array of molecular sensors. This combined with the capability to quickly wash and flood these local sensor sites with reagents results in the basic infrastructure required for genome sequencing,” states Peumans. “Imec is committed to make partnerships between the world of biology and microsystems and as such contribute to the coming revolution in life sciences.“

Els Parton, Science editor imec

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