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Microfluidic devices designed to help rapid diagnosis through blood

Researchers at BYU have created microfluidic lab-on-a-chip devices using a new 3D printing technique that could help doctors find preterm birth defects and treat patients suffering from lung diseases, among other applications. Their research work has been published in Nature Communications paper "Spatially and optically tailored 3D printing for highly miniaturized and integrated microfluidics" where they detail a generalized 3D printing process that enables the fabrication of much higher resolution 3D components without increasing the resolution of the 3D printer.

Microfluidic devices are tiny, coin-sized microchips that include a set of nearly microscopic channels, valves and pumps etched into the material of the chip. They’re designed to sort out and analyze disease biomarkers, cells, and other small structures from samples of liquids, like blood, through their channels.

“We have taken the conventional 3D printing approach and generalized it to something that is broader in scope and has significantly more capability,” said BYU engineering professor Greg Nordin.

Currently, the process to create these devices is time-consuming and expensive. Due to the precision needed, new prototypes are typically created and tested in a cleanroom—a designated lab environment free from dust and other contaminants. This process makes it difficult to manufacture and distribute the lab-on-a-chip technology on a large scale and puts major limitations on the size and type of devices that can be made.

To overcome these obstacles, Nordin and his team changed the traditional uniform method of 3D printing to one that altered the thickness, order, and a number of layers stacked. These small changes resulted in dramatic advantages that now allow for the chip to be manufactured at a fraction of the cost, and at a much smaller scale than before.

“People have been working on lab-on-a-chip devices for 20+ years, but making prototypes in cleanrooms is an inhibitor to success,” Nordin said. “The road to market stops with clean rooms. With 3D printing, there is a road to market.” Nordin and his team are hoping that their new development will set in motion more microfluidic research and development because of the lower cost it now takes to create these devices.

“Our new approach gets you over some of the big hurdles that block using this technology in real-world applications,” said Nordin. “We have yet to see that someone takes that and runs with it, but we certainly hope they will.”

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