Tiny Future: Microfluidics in the Market

31 March 2010 (Last Updated March 31st, 2010 18:30)

Has the industry been too optimistic in its predictions of miniaturisation's popularity? Parker's Todd Milne and Kloehn's Michael Marshall tell Nic Paton how the microfluidic market is advancing and examine where fluid dispensing and transmission will go next.

Tiny Future: Microfluidics in the Market

We may still be, thankfully, nowhere near a medical device environment where, like Dennis Quaid in the 1987 comedy Innerspace, someone is able to be accidentally injected inside a patient, but miniaturisation is becoming an increasingly important and powerful trend within filtration and fluid control.

Microfluidics, nanotechnology, nano-scaling, lab-on-a-chip technology and nano-propulsion are all at the cutting edge of the medical device filtration and fluid control arena.

This technology is a breathtaking science, where advances and breakthroughs seem to be being made almost daily, with scientists at Harvard for example in early 2010 working to marry high-performance optics technology with microfluidics to better detect biological reactions within liquid drops.

Alongside this there is also an almost old-fashioned driver – the desire to get diagnosis back to the bedside and out of the laboratory or even the hospital setting, argues Todd Milne, division marketing manager at Parker Hannifin's Precision Fluidics Division.

"We are seeing increased demand for point-of-care diagnosis at the patient's bedside," he explains. "Treatments that once used to happen within the hospital are now going into the home and so you are increasingly having high volumes of equipment that are going into that homecare environment."

To this end it is clear that, for medical device manufacturers, miniaturisation is going alongside personalisation. "There is demand for, say, where you would have once had three components or devices for there now to be the same functionality within one device," says Milne.

"Where you would have once had three components there is demand for there now to be the same functionality within one device."

"So it is about simplifying devices but also having more intelligent devices. We are seeing continuing miniaturisation, with customers still expecting the product footprint to shrink, even when you are attempting to bring three products down to one."

There is also a focus on power and energy, Milne explains, particularly in terms of developing devices that are more portable or semi-portable and personal and so use less power.

The smaller the power consumption, the smaller the battery you need and therefore the more options you have for miniaturisation. This also ties in with the wider move away from the clinical or laboratory setting to delivery at the bedside or even within the home.

"We are also seeing more products that, for example, target the ventilator market, which in itself is a relatively mature market but people are looking at it in a different way and making advances, particularly around control of the flow to the patient," he adds.

"If you, say, have a neonate or an adult patient the flow you are going to need is often going to be very different. There will be different requirements for breathing, volume, pressure or frequency. So there is demand for devices and products that can cover the whole range, from neonate to adult rather than needing to have different products and devices."

Trendsetting technology

A number of launches in early 2010 from Parker Hannifin illustrate some of these wider trends. In January, for example it launched a miniature high-flow proportional valve, the VSO® Max. One of the key attributes of this compact, high-flowing proportional valve is that it enables higher flows at lower pressures, and offers 18% more flow while using 25% less power.

"Instruments are getting smaller and are faster paced, but it will be a mistake to think miniaturisation is going to become big time in the short term."

Similarly, in February, the company unveiled a new miniature, low-power, extreme flow range proportional control valve, the PACE Hf. This high-flow proportional valve is targeted at the respiratory and anaesthesia markets and can enable flow up to 500lpm in a very compact and energy-efficient package.

Again, a range of applications will have power usage, of less than one watt, meaning a longer battery life or the ability to use a smaller battery to save size and weight. Within the emergency setting, too, there is increased demand for lower weight and more portable devices with a small footprint.

"Everything is moving away from the lab to the bedside," says Milne. "There is an appetite for products with small flow but high pressure that can get a sample or reagent through and which cause things to happen.

"I think over the next five to ten years we are going to see a lot more commercialisation around microfluidics, labs on a chip and in general ever-greater miniaturisation.

"In the future there will be more devices that can run multiple tests and can go to the bedside, either sitting directly on the doctor's hip or on the patient's bed. Just as patients already have monitors for their blood pressure or pulse rate, there will be similar monitoring equipment coming through on the diagnosis side," he adds.

"There will also, I suspect, be a focus on developments around devices that link through the internet and telecommunications. So you might be able to prick your finger, take a blood sample, test it, send it back to the doctor and get it back all from your home."

Optimistic predictions

If anything, the confident predictions made a decade or so about how nanotechnology and microfluidics would change the face of fluidics and filtration control forever and, more widely, medical devices, do not as yet appear to be being borne out, argues Michael Marshall, president of fluidics systems company Kloehn.

"The smaller the power consumption, the smaller the battery you need and therefore the more options you have for miniaturisation."

"Billions of dollars are being invested in microfluidics," he says. "I had a bet with a colleague five or so years ago who argued that nano-dispensing systems were going to take over everything, but it has not really arrived yet.

"It is used but it is still a bit of a niche area. For understandable reasons, it has been slow to be adapted into old, slower technologies that are proven to work and are improving all the time.

"In a way, it's a bit similar with the whole notion of the lab-on-a-chip. It is very interesting technology, but I do think it has been somewhat overhyped. It is part and parcel of the gradual push towards miniaturisation but it is not like how everyone thought it was going to be ten years ago.

"Instruments are getting smaller and are faster paced. I think what we are going to see is careful progress towards lab-on-a-chip and increased miniaturisation and microfluidics but, for now at least, it will be a mistake to think it is going to become big time in the short term," he cautions.

Improved, smaller and more efficient systems

Overall the move within fluidics and filtration control is, if anything, much more to that of a holistic, system approach, agrees Marshall. Kloehn, for example, has recently launched a new series of InLine Pumps with solenoid valve configurations and other fluid dispensing choices. The company's Geronimo micro-solenoid two-way valves, too, are designed specifically for high-density manifolding applications and microfluidic dispensing.

There is a general feeling that devices are generally getting smaller, as Marshall explains. Where it used to be OK to have an instrument that took up 10–20ft² of floor space, now the norm, and the demand, is to have something that will fit on a desk.

"There will also be a focus on developments around devices that link through the internet and tele-communications."

"There is also increased demand for real-time results," he adds. "Patients and physicians like it when you can get results back in, say, 20 or 30 minutes rather than having to wait overnight like you used to. We have gone from the lab to the doctor's office and now we are trying to extend it into the home, but that in turn creates new challenges that have to be addressed.

"Drug companies are also becoming more focused on very specific medicines, for instance around gene make-up. The drive to identify and map the human genome and to develop targeted therapies on the back of this, which all need to be delivered to the patient and where the management of fluidics is likely to be a key part of the process, has huge potential for this industry."

The race is one to develop drugs tailored to people's genetic make-up and Marshall believes that over the next three to four years it is an area that will grow and expand. For example, at the moment the focus in this area is very much on cancer, but he suspects that is only going to be the start.

"The key is to keep the OEM and their end customer in clear focus to create customised, best-in-class solutions," he concludes. "At Norgren, we call this 'engineering advantage', meaning the OEM can take a share in their marketplace because the end-user recognises the operational and economic superiority of the new machine. To achieve the highest level of success, your precision fluidic system must bring value to the OEM and the end-user cooperatively."