Chip technology may bring new drugs to market faster

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The development of new drugs is one of the most expensive processes in health care, often costing billions of dollars to bring a single drug to market. Screening patients and testing their reactions to drugs is only the last step in a chain of time-consuming and expensive trials, beginning with the discovery of potential effects from a compound.

Dr. Bingcheng Lin, an International Visiting Research Scholar at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, is developing a technology to make the early stages of drug development stream-lined, cheaper and much, much smaller. 

Lab-on-a-chip technology allows scientists to work with much smaller samples and see results more quickly because of the short distances that fluids need to travel within the tiny microscope-slide size tools. To date, lab-on-a-chip has been used to screen tumors, find potential patients for tissue regeneration studies and protect against chemical attacks, among many other current and potential applications.

Dr. Lin’s research aims to take advantage of the rapidity with which lab-on-a-chip technology can deal with samples in order to screen new drugs. In an age of spiking drug costs, a speedier, more efficient process for drug development would be welcome for pharmaceutical companies, healthcare providers, taxpayers, and patients.

“Using microfluidic technology in this step may significantly save the expenses plus labour costs, and shrink the development,” says Dr. Lin. He adds that the process could not only obviate the need for ethically problematic animal testing, but actually improve on the results too.

Working on such a small scale has unique challenges that Dr. Lin and his colleagues at UBC are meeting with equally unique solutions. Because the usefulness of lab-on-a-chip depends on a field known as microfluidics, which studies the unique behaviour of tiny quantities of fluids, seeing and understanding what is happening can be difficult.

Transoceanic connections through the Peter Wall Institute are helping Dr. Lin sort out this problem.

“Coupling between microfluidics and mass spectroscopy is a good start to deal with part of this problem,” says Dr. Lin from his lab in Dalian, China.

Dr. Chang Liu and Jessica Risley, supervised by UBC Professor Dr. David Chen, and in collaboration with Dr. Lin, have been working to combine lab-on-a-chip technology with mass spectroscopy to unlock new tools for interfacing with the tiny tools. 

“Since microfluidics is regarded as the best platform so far for handling and investigating samples in fluid with very small consumptions, such a combination will equip our research with a powerful tool at the molecular level in developing new drugs and characterizing precious proteins,” says Dr. Lin.

Scholarly connections such as the collaboration with Professor Chen have been useful in solving the problems arising from the small scale lab-on-a-chip. But the broader interdisciplinary approach fostered at the Institute has contributed to big-picture intellectual issues as well.

“Even though our backgrounds are so different, innovation is the common ground we stand on,” says Dr. Lin. “I personally get a better understanding and some new ideas– and more importantly, it gave me a chance to turn around and look back into my area from a whole new and quite different perspective.”