WMU News

WMU gets funding to create 'lab on a chip'

Feb. 21, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan University researcher Dr. Subra Muralidharan calls it "a lab on a chip."

What may sound like a type of appetizer is actually an ambitious new research effort under way at WMU using nanotechnology to embed the capabilities of a state-of-the-art laboratory onto a microchip with the potential to speed the process of scientific discoveries by a factor of 100.

It's an idea that has not only been awarded $750,000 in funding from the state's Life Sciences Initiative, but also attracted the collaboration and support of Pharmacia Corp. and Argonne National Laboratory.

Muralidharan, an associate professor of chemistry, and colleagues Dr. Jay Means, chairperson of WMU's Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Charles Ide, director of WMU's Environmental Institute, learned in December that they received funding from the Michigan Life Sciences Initiative for their project.

The Michigan Life Sciences Initiative was launched last year by Gov. John Engler to boost the state's high-tech economy and is financed by the state's share of a legal settlement against tobacco companies.

Muralidharan explains that the WMU project is to develop "chip-based chemistry," creating a microchip or an array of chips that can perform a complex sequence of tasks that are normally conducted in a laboratory. Specifically, the project is aimed at designing a chip that, through the use of centrifugal force, will separate, synthesize and perform high throughput screening of molecules in extremely small volumes.

"Currently this kind of proposed technology would use an electrically driven field, and is limited to simple homogeneous liquids," Muralidharan says. "Our idea is to use a centrifugal field resulting from spinning chips at very a high speed. Once you do that, the chip can be used to conduct several types of analyses at once, even in complex nonhomogeneous mixtures.

"Essentially it will be a faster, cheaper and better way to do what takes a lot more time and effort now," he says.

Pharmacia Corp.'s involvement in the project stems from its interest in using the technology for the research and development of new pharmaceuticals. Muralidharan says that the chip can also be used to do combinatorial synthesis, a process in which many structurally related molecules are synthesized simultaneously. Currently, such synthesis is done at a painstakingly slow rate of merging one molecule at a time.

"We will be able to make hundreds of drug molecules in a short time," he says. "Additionally researchers will be able to determine immediately, by high throughput screening, which of these drug molecules are viable for future development and which ones to eliminate."

Muralidharan says that chips will have the potential for making speedy medical diagnoses by analyzing clinical samples for a variety of illnesses, including those that are gene related. These chips could make a major impact in genomics, where they will help scale down and speed up the current gene-mapping and sequencing technology.

"Through gene mapping, we could determine whether or not someone has the propensity for a gene-related illness, like Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's disease, years before it manifests itself," he says. "And in cases where that knowledge can't be used to prevent the onset of the disease, we can hopefully minimize its impact and greatly improve the future quality of life."

This nanotechnology will also allow for the analysis of very small biological samples, such as a spot of blood instead of a vial, lending itself to many applications in medical, forensic, and environmental sciences.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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