Because living organisms contain millions of different molecules, identifying or separating any single one of these from their natural environment in order to carry out research work or perform diagnoses is quite like looking for a needle in a haystack. A number of molecular separation technologies are of course available, and are used by laboratories on a daily basis, but they are often unwieldy and costly. Scientists the world over are therefore attempting to develop a new generation of analytic devices, known as labs-on-a-chip, where all the technological phases of laboratory work are integrated into speedy automated procedures, in what can be deemed to be a single sample to diagnosis step.
CNRS scientists (1) working at the Institut Curie, together with an ESPCI team, have broken new ground in this field, coming closer to such systems with a technology they have called Ephesia (2) . Combining knowledge and tools developed in physics, chemistry, and biology, they have developed an original approach based on the use of self-organizing nanospheres, which handle the key molecule sorting phase within these chips. This new technology paves the way to a whole field of applications both in genetics and in biochemistry, ranging from the study of molecules to medical diagnostics, in particular in oncology with a view to detecting mutations or micrometastases. These new results are to be published by Science magazine on March 22.
A wide range of labs-on-a-chip using very different concepts and materials are currently being developed the world over. The basic idea which they all share is that the various component phases involved in the analysis of given samples are conducted within microchannels (ranging from one tenth to one hundredth of a millimeter) etched onto a microchip. The samples and the substances used to process them, with a view to extracting specific molecules, are injected into these channels and moved about using micropumps, ultra-small pneumatic systems, and electric fields. The device developed by the Institut Curie team is based on a silicone rubber wafer with a 4 cm diameter, within which fine channels have been moulded. This medium was initially developed by G.M. Whitesides at Harvard University in the United States and is well suited for mass production because of its low cost. One of the major issues in developing a lab-on-a-chip involves building molecule-sorting sieves that will operate within these microchannels. This is the problem to which the Institut Curie and ESPCI teams have provided an original solution, interfacing physics, chemistry, and biology.
Catherine Goupillon | alphagalileo
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