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Tiny fluid samples get big results in U of C tech lab

Jason Heikenfeld (right) of UCís College of Engineering and Applied Science. Photos Submitted
Jason Heikenfeld (right) of UCís College of Engineering and Applied Science. Photos Submitted
In the maturing science of microfluidics, it's apparent that small things can make a big impact in the medical, mobile, environmental and other industries. With a $3 million grant from Ohio Third Frontier, the University of Cincinnati is poised to become a leader in developing a myriad of better, faster, more precise products and manufacturing processes through the new Ohio Center for Microfluidic Innovation.

The center pairs U.C. faculty – many of whom are world renowned pioneers in this science – with students and innovative companies to create high-tech, high-powered-products through microfluidics, the technology of designing and making products that can manipulate, control and harness very small fluid flows. Think using a drop of blood to run a medical test instead of three vials.

“Let’s say you want to do a medical diagnostic test. There is a lab and people are walking around with fluids, they have to mix it by hand and send the results back,” explained Jason Heikenfeld, associate professor of electrical engineering and director of the center. “With microfluidics, you can do that all in a chip; it does the mixing and everything. Less fluid required, don’t pay as much for each test, it’s quicker—the analytical time goes from hours to seconds—and it’s more precise.”

The technology can be used in a wide variety of applications including medical device industries to electronic paper and environmental sensor development. And the University is leading the way through its academic-based center.

“There is no other center like this in the Midwest; in some ways it puts us on the international stage,” said Heikenfeld. “Companies come to us because they have an idea, or maybe just a need. A bit unique for academia, with this new center we can transform that idea into reality at a lower cost, faster and quicker than they can do it themselves.”
It’s estimated that the center will have a short-term impact of more than 50 new Ohio jobs created, with longer term opportunity of $1 billion in additional revenue and more than 1,000 permanent jobs. The technology opens up new opportunities in product development and manufacturing.

Through microfluidics, environmental sensors can be made more sensitive, prescription drugs can better target cells and the electronic “paper” in your mobile reader can read more vibrantly. The science isn’t brand new, it was born in the 1980s, but it is becoming more accepted in the business innovation community as the results become easier to test and commercialize.

UC Center faculty are focusing in on the microfluidics technology related to medical diagnostics tools and environmental sensors, with plans in the near future to fold in consumer electronics and household products.
“UC has four or five faculty who are internationally known in microfluidics and electrofluidics,” said Heikenfeld. “And now is a time when our microfluidic products are starting to hit the market.”

A number of companies are, or will soon, work with the center including Siloam Biosciences, Sun Chemical, P&G, Air Force Research Labs, and Gamma Dynamics.

“We have new products launching and appearing in catalogs and videos,” Heikenfeld said. One collaborative product is Siloam Biosciences Optimiser™ Platform Technology, a diagnostic system that allows for smaller body fluid samples and faster test results.

“Siloam accesses the center for making the prototypes of their lab-on-a-chip products using the functional polymer manufacturing facilities installed in the OCMI. In addition, the OCMI provides the characterization of the polymer lab-on-a-chips and microfluidic-based micorplates which are currently manufactured in Siloam Biosciences,” said Biosciences President Chong Ahn, who is also a professor of electrical engineering at UC. “The center helps all those companies in Ohio that want to make the products related to the polymer lab-on-a-chips and microfluidic devices, to minimize their capital investment on the manufacturing facilities as they get started.”

Before receiving the Third Frontier grant, UC faculty were working and leading in microfluidics technology. For instance, Ahn invented the disposable “Lab on a Chip” that uses a small blood sample to quickly complete a general health test. The breakthrough technology can get results back in less than 20 minutes as opposed to weeks or days.

The grant has allowed the University to have a dedicated 3,000 square-foot center on campus, complete with a clean room, rapid prototyping equipment and conference space. The upgrades have allowed the Center to further leverage those state funds; the university is now in the process of applying for larger federal grants, Heikenfeld said.

“This gives us a physical center to rally everyone around, and to excite industry. Before our efforts were kind of scattered,” he said.

In addition to the day-to-day work that goes on in the center, other outreach is in the works. The center will host industry training seminars and workshops, and undergraduate and graduate programs for students.

The center allows a new kind of dynamic collaboration between faculty, students and business that wasn’t there before.
“The best outcomes happen not because industry has a specific idea, or not because a university professor has some great discovery. It’s because industry and universities are working together learning each others’ cultures and what motivates each other. That’s when unexpected, and the best, outcomes happen,” Heikenfeld said.
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