Bioelectronics and biosciences could replace the drug industry as we know it

From bioelectronics to biosciences, the pace of change in life sciences is accelerating as companies look to microfluidics, micro- and nanotechnology to develop innovative medical treatments.

Earlier this year, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced that it was a forming a bioelectronics firm with Verily Life Sciences, a subsidiary of Alphabet. The new company will research, develop and commercialize bioelectronics medicine, a relatively new scientific field in which miniaturized, implantable devices could treat illnesses ranging from bowel disease to arthritis, hypertension and diabetes.

In biosciences, IBM has used semiconductor manufacturing technology to create micro-machined structures capable of separating biological particles between 20 and 140nm into different sizes.

These particles, or exosomes, have been described as being the ‘fragments of life’ and are found in bodily fluids such as blood, saliva or urine. According to IBM, by identifying the size of surface proteins and their nucleic acid ‘cargo’, it will be possible to develop techniques to identify the presence, or the developing state, of various diseases.

The structure comprises of an array of pillars positioned at an angle to a flow of liquid. Hydrodynamics means particles of a particular size will travel smoothly between the pillars, but larger or smaller particles will ‘bounce’ off or get swept around in slipstreams and can then be collected. By varying the array’s parameters, different particle sizes can be picked off at different stages.

IBM Microfluid yole

A microfluidic chip developed by IBM

Experimental biosciences

According to Dr Emmanuel Delamarche, who is leading bioscience research activities at IBM Research in Zurich: “The possibilities of work being conducted not only here at IBM, but also across the sector, are immense and being driven by a real medical need. Health providers are calling for greater portability – hence the development of wearable devices – and want to be able to bring treatments closer to their patients.”

One area of considerable interest is microfluidics. It is a rapidly developing area of research and scientists are continually discovering a range of possibilities for the technology. The work we are doing is at the intersection of engineering, physics, chemistry, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Among the projects with which Dr Delamarche is involved are those investigating the role intercellular pathways play in neurodegenerative diseases and those developing techniques for tissue section analysis.

Microfluidics is set to revolutionize the way patients are diagnosed, monitored and treated and is helping to unlock the potential for point of care testing diagnostics,” he explains. “We will be able to offer faster and more sensitive detection of multiple markers for various diseases. But microfluidics can also be used in pathology, as well as in cell-to-cell interactions, which are especially important when it comes to understanding and treating diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Microfluidics, being used in the development of DNA chips, lab-on-a-chip technology, micro-propulsion and micro-thermal technologies, involves the precise control and manipulation of fluids.

The latest applications employ passive fluid control techniques, like capillary forces, while active microfluidics uses components such as micro pumps or micro valves to manipulate fluids, determining the flow direction or the mode of movement of liquids.

Beyond point of care, we are also looking at organ-on-a-chip, paper-based microfluidics; tissue engineering and microfabrication,” explains Dr Delamarche.

However, there are a number of challenges when it comes to working with microfluidics. “The problem is not so much making a proof of concept; rather, it’s taking these devices and then making them suitable for manufacture. We are a long way from that point and it remains the key challenge. You are creating micro channels and deploying technology that is hidden in closed structures. The fabrication of these devices requires a closed microfluidic system and we are currently struggling to deliver applications that could be mass produced.”