Since the early 20th century, cell culture techniques in biology labs have stayed relatively the same. A researcher puts living cells and nutrients into a lab dish and then places it inside a traditional incubator, a heating compartment that is typically the size of a small refrigerator. Within the unit, the researcher must maintain a constant temperature, an environment free of contaminants, and the proper levels of humidity, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. Whenever the researcher removes the lab dish for observation or experiments, however, these conditions are disrupted, and the cells begin to die.
Integrating silicon microchip technology with a network of tiny fluid channels, some thinner than a human hair, researchers at The Johns Hopkins University have developed a thumb-size micro-incubator to culture living cells for lab tests. The system can culture cells over a period of days autonomously. Once it is set up, researchers can just walk away. The discovery was reported in a recent edition of the journal IEEE Transactions on biomedical Circuits and Systems.
The incubator’s microchannels, fabricated in soft silicone polymer material, let researchers easily insert and guide cells and nutrients during experiments, while the computer-controlled electronics keep the cells at the precise temperature so that they can multiply and thrive. The tiny incubator’s transparent design makes it easy to view the cells through a microscope or camera without disrupting delicate environmental conditions.
The cells gravitate toward and stick to the surface of the microchip. The chip contains a simple heating unit – a miniature version of the type found in a common toaster – and is equipped with a sensor that continually checks to make sure the proper temperature is maintained. The chip connects to a computer that controls the sensing and heating process.
The device is also eco-friendly. Components whose fabrication has an adverse effect on the environment are smaller. Additionally, they are easily re-useable in other devices. Two of the researchers involved in the project, Jennifer Blain Christen and Andreas Andreou, said environmental impacts should be an important consideration in all types of research. “In our own field, among researchers who are working at the interface between electronics and biology, we believe our approach — making ecological considerations integral to our design — is rather uncommon,” said Christen. “But we also believe this approach is one that all engineers should be adopting.”
Johns Hopkins Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering:
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