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BioMEMS Research Produces Mini-Medical Monitor

Date: May 18, 2001
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photos by: Dottie Stover
Graphic provided by: Chong Ahn
Archive: Research News

UC's Microsystems and BioMEMS Laboratory at the Center for Microelectronic Sensors and MEMS (CMSM) is attracting millions of dollars in federal funding and attention from researchers around the world, but the projects coming out of the lab are even more amazing. Working with major corporations and other high-tech universities, College of Engineering researchers are on the verge of developing a wristwatch-like device that can monitor everything from a patient in intensive care to a wounded soldier on a distant battlefield, using disposable smart plastic biochips.

Chong Ahn

"This is an amazing story," said Chong H. Ahn, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering and computer science and director of the Microsystems and BioMEMS Lab. "UC has made the greatest strides. It's one of the most successful programs in the country," alongside MIT, Stanford, the University of Michigan and UC-Berkeley. Ahn said UC engineers are making a strong impact in three areas involving MEMS technology, which stands for micro-electromechanical systems:

  • Magnetic MEMS
  • BioMEMS
  • Nano Biochips

    "We belong to the top tier," said Ahn, who has letters from top research directors at the National Science Foundation and elsewhere documenting that his novel inventions and excellent publications "put UC on the map" in the rapidly growing MEMS and BioMEMS fields.

    plastic microchip

    Ahn is a leader at numerous international conferences on BioMEMS and MEMS, where he has demonstrated how to make micro biochips out of plastic. That research has moved forward quickly and is now focusing on the development of a wristwatch-like device to monitor blood chemistry.

    "There is no pain in blood sampling," he notes. That's because microscopic needles made of biodegradable plastic materials are used to quickly pierce the skin and retrieve the tiny amount of blood needed for analysis. The analysis uses "smart, plastic biochips," which are extremely sensitive, inexpensive, disposable and fast.

    "We can analyze almost anything in 10-20 seconds with a tiny drop of blood," said Ahn. Traditional lab tests can take hours with the blood sample using a big syringe, and patients often wait days for results. Collaborators include researchers at Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, Meridian Diagnostics Inc. and CFD-RC.

    device design

    One of the novel features of the system is the way it reduces energy consumption by using a pressured air or liquid on a biochip, as an alternative power to electronic batteries. Tiny bubbles in the biochips are "popped," releasing a blast of air in a sequence to run the various channels, mixers, incubators, sensors and valves required for analysis on a chip. Since the biochips are disposable, it doesn't matter that the bubbles burst. Just pop in a new chip, and you're ready to run the next series of tests.

    DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is funding the project in hopes of being able to get a quick read on the condition of soldiers wounded in battle or of various clinical screening and diagnostic applications. "The army would be able to monitor a soldier's condition during the operation. Is he going into shock due to bleeding or respiratory difficulty? You could judge by the biochips with remote communication."

    Because the basic technology has been worked out, the monitor could easily be adapted to check for a number of different compounds including lactate, glucose, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the blood, including detection of infectious diseases using immunoassay. That means the wristband monitor could be used as a point-care system in hospitals or to monitor outpatients.

    Ahn's progress has been so remarkable that he has been invited to over 15 international meetings in addition to invited talks at top U.S. labs. He says the "real success story" though is the number of engineering graduate students succeeding in the new field of BioMEMS. They have produced nearly 100 papers in some of the world's top journals and major international conferences in MEMS and BioMEMS, including one U.S. patent issued and eight U.S. patents pending. After earning their degrees, they have gone to positions at AT&T Bell Labs, Motorola, Samsung and new biotech start-up companies.

    In addition, he has been extensively working on the development of "lab-on-a-chip" using glass or plastic substrates to detect and analyze bio-molecules such as specific proteins and/or antigens in liquid samples. The methodology and system, which has been developed on disposable plastic substrates, can be also applied to generic bio-molecule detection and analysis systems with appropriate bio receptors/reagents such as DNA fragments or oligonucleotides for genomic analysis and/or high throughput protein analysis.

    He is now working with several medical doctors and cell biologists from the UC College of Medicine for applying the disposable plastic or glass biochips to genomics and proteomics research, including cell-based biochips. His lab and the CMSM are now fully equipped to fabricate micro- or nano- structures for biochips and BioMEMS devices using plastic, glass and silicon substrates. Specifically, his recent DARPA project allows his lab to be equipped with state-of-the-art plastic micromachining tools such as a micro molder fabrication system, a micro plastic injection-molding system, a plastic embossing system, a wafer aligning and bonding system, a laser micromachining system, a plastic surface analyzer and more.

    It's even possible that some of the inventive work done in the College of Engineering will spawn a new biotech company through the initiatives of the Office of Intellectual Property. But Ahn is quick to acknowledge the ideas and efforts of his fellow engineering faculty members, which includes electrical engineering's Joseph Nevin, who has worked on circuit designs, and Gregory Beaucage in material science and engineering, who has developed the polymers required for the plastic biochips. Both are co-PIs on the DARPA-funded project, which will be performed for the next three years.

    "This is one of the most successful examples of teamwork at UC," said Ahn. "The success is not mine alone. It's an interdisciplinary collaboration with many partners throughout the University of Cincinnati."

    For more information, check out Ahn's web site at www.biomems.uc.edu.


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