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Deliver drugs within the body with precision with the help of liposomes?

April 29, 2010
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Scientists have defined the workings of a new technique for making liquid-filled vesicles called liposomes, "fat bubbles" that may one day be used to precisely deliver drugs within the body. The new insight could help make a microchip-scale liposome manufacturing process practical.

Computer simulations showing the mixing of water and isopropyl alcohol in a COMMAND microfluidic device. The alcohol, which would contain dissolved phospolipids in operation, flows from the left to the right via the center inlet and is focused by water flowing in from the top and bottom inlets. Adjusting flow rates gives a tightly focused stream (top) or a broader one (bottom), controlling liposome size.
Credit: NIST

Pop a bubble while washing the dishes and you're likely to release a few drops of water trapped when the soapy sphere formed. A few years ago, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) pioneered a method using a microscopic fluidic (microfluidic) device that exploits the same principle to create liquid-filled vesicles called liposomes from phospholipids, the fat complexes that are the building blocks for animal cell membranes. These structures are valued for their potential use as agents to deliver drugs directly to cancers and other disease cells within the body.

Widespread application of liposomes as artificial drug carriers has been hindered by a number of limiting factors such as inconsistency in size, structural instability and high production costs. In a new study, the NIST and University of Maryland (UM) researchers have detailed the operation of their liposome manufacturing technique -- known as COMMAND for COntrolled Microfluidic Mixing And Nanoparticle Determination -- in order to maximize its effectiveness. Their goal was to better understand how COMMAND works as it produces liposomes with diameters controlled from about 50 to 150 nanometers (billionths of a meter) that are consistently uniform in size and inexpensively produced in what might be called an "assembly-line-on-a-microchip."

The researchers fabricate the COMMAND microfluidic devices by etching tiny channels into a silicon wafer with the same techniques used for making integrated circuits. In COMMAND, phospholipid molecules dissolved in isopropyl alcohol are fed via a central inlet channel into a "mixer" channel and "focused" into a fluid jet by a water-based solution (that in production would carry a drug or other cargo for the vesicles) added through two side channels. The components blend together as they mix by diffusion across the interfaces of the flowing fluid streams, directing the phospholipid molecules to self-assemble into nanoscale vesicles of controlled size. Different microfluidic device designs and fluid flow conditions were tested to investigate their role in producing liposomes.

The research team found that their liposome manufacturing process fundamentally depends on the flow and mixing of the fluid streams. The size of the liposomes can be "tuned" by manipulating the fluid flow rates, which in combination with the dimensions of the microfluidic device, determine the resulting mixing conditions. A tightly focused stream of phospholipid-carrying alcohol flowing at a slow rate tends to mix quickly with the buffer at the beginning of the mixing channel and forms small vesicles. A loosely focused stream flowing at a fast rate travels farther down the length of the mixing channel, allowing more mixing time and yielding larger vesicles.

The geometry of the channels plays an additional role, the researchers noted, in regulating the speed of production and the quantity and concentration of liposomes manufactured. This may be important for future clinical applications of liposomes as well as the integration of COMMAND into more complicated microchip systems for health care.

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Materials provided by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal References:

  1. Jahn et al. Controlled Vesicle Self-Assembly in Microfluidic Channels with Hydrodynamic Focusing. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2004; 126 (9): 2674 DOI: 10.1021/ja0318030
  2. Jahn et al. Microfluidic Mixing and the Formation of Nanoscale Lipid Vesicles. ACS Nano, 2010; 4 (4): 2077 DOI: 10.1021/nn901676x

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National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). "Deliver drugs within the body with precision with the help of liposomes?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 April 2010. <>.
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). (2010, April 29). Deliver drugs within the body with precision with the help of liposomes?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 30, 2017 from
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). "Deliver drugs within the body with precision with the help of liposomes?." ScienceDaily. (accessed March 30, 2017).