Creating opportunities for Australia in Microfluidics
In this article, the NSSN’s Research Theme Leader in Microfluidics, Dr Ramanathan Vaidyanathan, gives his perspective on opportunities for Australia in Microfluidics.
Microfluidic technologies have been around for a few decades. However, during the past 10 years we have witnessed a paradigm shift in their capabilities and applications across life sciences and diagnostics. Microfluidic technologies have progressed from being a simple automation technique for a wide range of assays to harbouring new assay formats such as Next-Gen Sequencing (NGS) by reducing time and cost savings per assay. The realm of microfluidic technology is home to a wide variety of embodiments and applications, but the motivation for its use in medicine and life science research can be narrowed down to two critical points:
(i) microfluidic devices make a compelling case due to the possibility for integrating multiple processes at the micron scale, and
(ii) microfluidic devices can be easy to use, cheap to fabricate and operate, require very little sample (few microlitres), handle a wide range of body fluids and can be easily disposed of.
For these reasons and more this simple diagnostic device has been recognised as a potential killer application of microfluidics and is the motivation for much of the research effort in microfluidic technology development.
Microfluidics is a vastly growing field in Australia whilst the United States holds the largest market share in terms of product development and budget sanctions for R&D. Microfluidic technologies are expected to have a major economic impact on products in life science with more than 30% per annum being attributed to technologies in drug discovery, medical diagnostics and therapeutic devices. The microfluidic device market is said be worth US$2.5 billion in 2018 and is estimated to reach US$5.8 billion by 2022. This is quite amazing considering the fact that most microfluidic devices are not what one wants to buy as a consumer. In most cases, such technologies serve only as a toolbox in laboratories for applications in research, medical and pharmaceutical sectors.
There are major opportunities for researchers in this space with regards to molecular and point-of-care diagnostics that occupy a major market share for commercially available fluidic devices. The big question for Australian researchers to establish a footprint in the market is whether we need more devices or more principles before we start to explore the huge potential of different applications in the life sciences? Not really!
Despite a great deal of work over the last few decades, microfluidics in Australia has not been the harbinger for scientific advancement it was initially predicted to be and is now more commonly referred to as a discipline in “adolescence”. With hundreds of different types of micropumps, fluid delivery/handling systems and microvalves already available, it is imperative that we adopt existing technology and principles into applications in medical diagnostics and therapeutics. This can ideally generate a new market for Australian microfluidic devices. For instance, the commercially available glucose meter is often regarded as the archetype for a simple diagnostic device. It is cheap ($10–$20 US), easy to operate, provides a clear digital readout of blood glucose level, and uses disposable paper strips for sample delivery. By combining a miniature biosensor with a simple and passive microfluidic delivery system the glucose meter requires only a small drop of blood from a finger prick of the operator. The innovation here is leaning more towards the integration rather than the assay itself.
While much of the research effort in the development of microfluidic technology has been driven by the potential to use small “lab-on-a-chip” technology in point-of-care diagnostic applications, the private sector has yet to reap the full benefits of these technologies. In this regard, it is only a matter of time before innovation in microfluidics from Australia starts to spread its wings on the global scale. The question was never on the capability; Australia houses some of the world-leading experts in the field of microfluidics, life science and medical diagnostics.
The successful adoption of these devices in the clinic requires a collaborative effort between developers, investors and researchers. Once this is realised, microfluidic technologies could revolutionise diagnostics, expanding its applications well beyond areas currently being explored, whilst moving diagnostic testing closer to the patient.
The NSW Smart Sensing Network is an ideal platform to realise this Australian dream of being a global leader in the field of molecular and medical diagnostics. While researchers are experts in their field, it is important that each laboratory prototype developed finds its niche application during early stages of product development. In this regard, the NSSN can provide valuable insights to researchers on product development and be the bridge required in transforming a seed idea into a commercially viable product.
To discuss more about possible collaborations and opportunities in fluidics, contact the NSSN’s Dr Ram Vaidyanathan.