Researchers Hope Small Experiments Yield Big Results
The concept of conducting experiments in a lab the size of a 1-by-3-inch microscope slide isn't science fiction, according to Albert Folch, a bioengineering professor at the University of Washington. A mini lab can be built in a day, he says.
Called a microfluidic device, or "lab on a chip," these tiny experimental environments contain channels the width of a strand of hair. (A close-up of one set of channels is shown above.) Researchers deposit chemicals into these channels, observing the reactions that occur when they cross paths.
Folch custom-designs each device for specific research needs: For example, he recently created one to detect which odors activate specific olfactory cells.
He isn't the only person working in a lab on a chip.
Pharmaceutical researchers use microfluidic devices to analyze how drugs interact. Others are investigating whether the labs may one day be used for the routine tests now done in hospital labs; the devices don't require large sample sizes and can produce test results cheaply and quickly.
-- Kathleen Hom