Aug. 20, 2008 Tracking down cancer at a very early stage, studying cell growth, developing new medicines: future lab-on-a-chip systems will use nanoscale electrical fields to enable the detection and manipulation of cells and biomolecules. The University of Twente’s eLab4Life project can expect a grant of 2.4 million euros from the European Research Council for this research.
Lab-on-a-chip systems bring the laboratory to the patient instead of the other way around: a blood sample will no longer have to go to the laboratory and the patient will no longer have to wait for the result; a pocket-sized laboratory that gives the result on the spot will soon be available. This is called ‘point-of-care diagnostics’. According to Prof. Albert van den Berg, who leads the University of Twente’s BIOS Lab-on-a-chip group, a real breakthrough can be expected from making special nanoscale structures for generating electrical fields that can be used to study individual cells or molecules: “So far a lot of experiments have been carried out with optical techniques that are sometimes difficult to integrate in a complete system. The new nanostructures we envisage will make it possible for us to miniaturize systems even further and to develop commercially-feasible equipment.”
Amongst other things, he anticipates that this research will provide opportunities for developing extremely sensitive chips that can detect biomarkers for cancer at a very early stage, and thus enable better treatment. Van Den Berg also wants to study cell growth on the new chips. The advantage of miniaturization here is that the environment in which the cell grows can be controlled very precisely. This precision is a great advantage for the development of new medicines, too: the researchers want, for example, to allow two types of cells to fuse on a chip to form new cells that will produce medicines.
Van den Berg’s group, a unit of the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology, has built up a global reputation in this field. A chip has, for instance, already been developed that realizes point-of-care diagnostics for people who use the medicine lithium. The spin-off enterprise MediMate will be launching this development on the market in the near future. In the eLab4Life project the group will be working together with Prof. Jurriaan Huskens' Molecular Nanofabrication group and Prof. Clemens van Blitterswijk’s Tissue Regeneration group.
The European Research Council’s Advanced Grants are European subsidies for research that opens up new horizons. One hundred and five of almost a thousand applications in the field of Physical Sciences and Engineering have been awarded one of these grants. Nine of these winning projects are based in the Netherlands. Albert van den Berg’s eLab4Life project can expect 2.4 million euros.
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