Lab on a chip: The future for drug discovery

A leading micro and nano technologist has revealed a new way to drug screen, saving the health system money and time.

With the lab-to-market timeframe of a new drug being up to 20 years, Dr Say Hwa Tan of Griffith University’s Queensland Micro- and Nanotechnology Centre hopes his new technology and methods will slash that period to a few years.

Dr Tan, an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow, works with “lab on a chip” technology, developing miniscule and intricate ways for lab work to be conducted on a small chip. These chips are about the size of a $2 coin.

Because current screening techniques are time consuming and expensive, Dr Tan is working with the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) to develop a novel microfluidic platform to address this problem.

The platform uses pico-liter droplets instead of a microliter size, meaning much lesser drug compounds are needed. The chips also provides automation which means that researchers can drug screen much faster.

It is estimated throughput will be 10,000 times higher and 1000 times lower in cost than the conventional plate-based testing methods in a lab.

Dr Tan said on demand microfluidic screening also meant researchers would reduce the waste of drug reagents.

“Biological materials such as protein are first encapsulated in these droplets and then screened for suitability by adding different natural drug candidates,” he said.

“Drug discovery is an extremely lucrative multi-billion industry which is also the strategic focus of many nations and companies.

“There’s a demand for this kind of technology and we hope with this particular process we can actually get a matter of a few years from discovery of a new compound to pushing it into the market which will ultimately produce savings.”

The success of this initial work has been published on the front cover of ACS Analytical Chemistry, an American Chemical Society journal.

Further works are in progress to unveil the full capabilities of this new method. The researchers are currently applying the concept to miniaturise and automate various conventional lab tasks.