Despite improvements in our ability to manipulate ever-smaller volumes using microfluidics, the technology remains inaccessible to many biologists as it often requires complex manufacturing facilities (such as soft lithography) and uses materials foreign to cell biology (such as polydimethylsiloxane).

Scientists at the University of Oxford – in the Department of Engineering Science and The Dunn School of Pathology – have led the development of a watery way for biologists to accelerate and advance biomedical discovery. The newly-developed platform could revolutionize the way biologists undertake cell-based assays in a diverse range of applications from bio-therapeutics to stem-cell therapy.

The physics that dominates the macro world requires solid materials to build objects; however, at the microscale interfacial forces can dominate and they have been exploited to create the world’s first fluid-shaping technology for biomedicine. The research is presented in a PNAS paper published today “Microfluidic chambers using fluid walls for cell biology” describing a new method for fabricating, and using, this new platform for a wide range of biological workflows. These watery walls are created by simply reshaping immiscible fluids in a standard Petri dish – see image – without the need for pre-treatment of the surface (e.g., using photolithography, which is often employed in microfluidics). The method has particular advantages in cell biology, where the substitution of fluid walls for solid ones results in vastly improved optical clarity, inherent biocompatibility with traditional cell culture, orders of magnitude savings on reagents, and acceleration of workflows (e.g., single-cell cloning).

Prof. Edmond Walsh from the Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford said “Our overarching objective is to make microfluidics accessible to biologists. The vast number of microfluidic devices that fail to get beyond proof of concept drove us to think about new ways of doing things. The multi-disciplinary nature of the research collaboration was critical to make the technology accessible to biologists.”

Prof. Peter Cook from The Dunn School of Pathology added “With this technology, for the first time we can fabricate, and operate, microfluidic arrangements in minutes using materials that biologist have used for decades. This could be a step change for biology where ideas can be brought to practice rapidly, thereby making microfluidics not only accessible, but attractive, to all biologists.”