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Lab in a Chip

photography by Chris Robinson

By combining microelectronics with microfluidics on computer chips – some as small as a nail cutting – researchers at York University have developed a radical breakthrough technology that advances drug discovery research and disease analysis.

Developed at two purpose-built labs that opened on the Keele Campus in 2018, the integrated biology and engineering systems use high-precision sensors and activators to detect different phenotypes of living cells – including cancer cells, bacteria and viruses – allowing for new and exciting scientific discoveries.

“It’s a paradigm shift to use microelectronic technology – previously used only for computers – for a life science application,” says Ebrahim Ghafar-Zadeh, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Lassonde School of Engineering, and graduate program member in the Department of Biology.  

“There is nowhere else in the world but York where this kind of research is taking place.”

The efficacy of the biotechnology is demonstrated by a York project that used the devices to track the proliferation of kidney cancer cells in vitro. The microelectronic sensors discerned even the subtlest of variations in the cells, making them more efficient than other methods for the development of cancer treatments.

Graduate students from both biology and engineering continue to work together to develop technologies that maximize the number of tests and increase the accuracy of drug testing in vitro. Improvements to the hybrid microelectronic–microfluidic system have the potential to reduce testing periods that typically run five years to one year or less, underscoring the value of the York research.

“Our goal is to be the leader in developing this type of technology for new types of drug testing in preclinical trials,” Ghafar-Zadeh says. “Our multidisciplinary approach has already given us an advantage.”  

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