Microfluidic cartridge for molecular diagnostics.
Microfluidic cartridge for molecular diagnostics.
Source: Holger Becker

COVID-19 speeds up microfluidics development

The global coronavirus pandemic has become a ‘catalyst’ for accelerated development and roll-out of microfluidic technologies. With soaring demand for point-of-care testing (POCT), microfluidics has been a pivotal resource as COVID-19 swept across the world. The sector responded with cartridge-based testing solutions developed and produced on a mass scale and at short notice, though observers note this could also present its own challenges as the COVID-19 landscape changes, particularly with hope of a vaccine on the horizon. Dr Holger Becker, Chief Scientific Officer of microfluidic ChipShop GmbH, will outline the latest developments and trends in the field of microfluidics at the virtual.COMPAMED 2020 congress.

Report: Mark Nicholls

Speaking to Tectales ahead of the congress, Dr Becker said that while microfluidics has become one of the key enabling technologies for new products in the life sciences arena, it has not – until now – attracted attention beyond the “hardcore” life science community.  He said: “COVID-19 and the need for highly sensitive, highly selective point-of-care testing has pushed the technology much more into the limelight. That is the hype, where suddenly everybody is talking about these rapid testing methods.”

The technology, he continued, can now deliver the testing demand, while for the wider population there remains hope that there will be a vaccine before long. But the industry ramping up manufacturing to meet demand, wonders what you do with the manufacturing infrastructure for making a million tests a day once COVID is over. “Even if you add up all the other infectious diseases, there is simply not such a demand to have that kind of manufacturing infrastructure sitting around,” he underlined.

Dr Becker’s company manufactures microfluidic devices and systems for diagnostic and biotechniccompanies and aims to “shrink” biological and chemical labs to bring lab-on-a-chip systems into daily laboratory life. “The lesson learned is that this sector has matured over the last three decades and become a robust technology,” he said. “You can make micro-cartridges which run a complete molecular diagnostic assay including a sample prep and with a PCR or another amplification without any need of user interaction. That is the big promise of the technology and that will change the approach towards diagnostics.” He recognizes there will still be a role for central laboratories but believes POCT will become “much more accepted and widespread as a consequence of COVID-19.”

Microfluidic cartridge for immunoassays.
Microfluidic cartridge for immunoassays.
Source: Holger Becker

Dr Becker also notes that while such testing in the microfluidics field would have developed anyway, it would not have happened so fast if not for COVID-19. “Cartridge-based tests have been under development for several years but COVID-19 is like a catalyst; it massively accelerates not only the development but especially the roll-out of these tests,” he said. “POC diagnostic testing has been advancing anyway but the pandemic has led to a much wider acceptance and awareness, even in the lay population.”

There are clear benefits for laboratories, patients and clinicians. For patients, POCT provides rapid results for COVID-19 or other diseases while in laboratory settings the cartridge-based tests reduce the chances for human error. “For the clinician,” he continued, “getting an actionable diagnostic result during the time the patient is within your vicinity allows you to make a much more educated therapeutical decision.”

Microfluidic cartridge centrifugal microfluidics (multiplexed immunoassay).
Microfluidic cartridge centrifugal microfluidics (multiplexed immunoassay).
Source: Holger Becker

In addition to point-of-care diagnostics, Dr Becker explained, the pharmaceutical industry is seeing a paradigm shift with another microfluid-enabled technology called organ-on-a-chip. This can help with preclinical studies for novel drugs and highlight shortcomings that may have later led to a retraction of the drug, before time or money has been wasted. “The quality of data points you obtain with such a chip is significantly better compared to a classical cell culture or animal model. This helps pharmaceutical companies develop drugs with a much-reduced risk of failure in the clinical stages,” said Dr Becker.

Photo
Dr Holger Becker.

PROFILE:
Dr Holger Becker is co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of microfluidic ChipShop GmbH. He has founded and led several companies in the field of microsystem technologies in medicine and the life sciences. In 2014, he was appointed a Fellow of The Royal Society of Chemistry (London) and in 2017 was awarded the “Ehrennadel” of the German Physical Society. He has published more than 160 journal and conference papers.


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