Researchers Hope Small Experiments Yield Big Results

(By Chris Neils)
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Tuesday, October 28, 2008; Page HE02

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

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