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From Liquid Crystal Displays in 1996 to Microfluidics in 2016

Water Drops

Emmanuel Delamarche is a researcher at IBM Research who presented at our 2nd Microfluidics Congress about his research on precision diagnostics based on modular capillary-driven elements.

How did you end up working in Microfluidics and what’s the main challenge you are currently facing?

We started to work on the fabrication of liquid crystal displays in 1996 and were looking for a solution for patterning expensive coloured polymers on glass substrates, essentially for making tiny lines with these polymers. I designed microfluidic channels for patterning these polymers over long distances and since I had worked on the photopatterning of proteins on surfaces from 1992 to 1995, during my PhD, I thought we could as well fill the microchannels with solutions of antibodies and antigens to miniaturize immunoassays. This worked very well and I found myself working more on microfluidics and biological assays each year and less on “classical” technology and lithography.

Probably, the main challenge I am currently dealing with is the integration of biological reagents inside closed microfluidics in a mass-manufactural manner. This is a vexing problem and even though we are making progress, I don’t feel we have the killer solution yet.

What are the most exciting recent developments in microfluidics technology?

Microfluidics are now known by most people outside the field and is a well accepted technology, at least on a research standpoint. So it becomes relatively easy to discuss potential applications with people expert in genetics, drug development, systems biology, oil recovery, optics, etc. The second exciting recent development is the broad availability of consumer electronic products, the evolution of smartphones and emergence of wearables. This brings a lot of low cost complementary components for microfluidics. This means we can focus on key bottlenecks relating to microfluidics and rely on already developed technology to bring forward “smart” microfluidics that can be connected to the “Internet of Things” or interesting databases.

How is microfluidics changing medical research and/or medical services?

This is tough to answer because microfluidics cover many areas of strongly fragmented markets. Microfluidics help analysing critical samples and small amounts of samples (e.g. rare cells, samples from small animals) and help parallel analysis of specimens. Maybe more importantly, microfluidics may provide better in vitro models for drug development and validation (e.g. “organ on a chip” concept). Microfluidics also represent an enabling technology for next generation sequencing instruments. In this area, the importance of sample pre-processing might have been underestimated and microfluidics can help a lot.

What do you see happening in the future?

I see several scenarios in which microfluidics will be able to generate more precise data compared to what point-of-care diagnostic devices generate now. These data will have strong value and will be obtained with high temporal and spatial granularity. I think this will provide critical inputs for solutions involving big data and predictive models for mapping and combatting global infectious diseases. We are actively working on this in the new IBM Frontiers Research Institute but let’s first get the microfluidics doing their job right on detecting infectious diseases.

Emmanuel Delamarche
Dr. Emmanuel Delamarche
is currently working at the Precision Diagnostics at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland. His research focuses on developing expertise in microtechnology, as well as surface chemistry and biochemistry.

Find out more about our next Microfluidics Congress

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