Lego Bricks meet MIT microfluidics science

Lego Bricks make it to MIT.

Lego bricks are a ton of fun to build with at home, and now they are making themselves a place in top-notch research labs as well. 

Legos in Labs? Can Legos be used to do cutting-edge research? It turns out they can in the world of microfluidics.

Microfluidics looks at how to mix, filter, and move tiny amounts of fluid around.

It might sound useless, but the world of microfluidics has far-reaching consequences. For example, they can be used to detect tiny amounts of rare cancer cells, they can count bacteria in a sample, and in the right configurations, they can even mimic a human lung. 

Finding rare cells.

Using microfluidics a lab technician could use a tiny amount of blood from a patient, put it into a specified device that would then mix a tiny amount of the blood with various chemicals and reactants.

This process could tag rare cells with an antigen that could then be used to stick it to a microarray, just like they are in the gif to the left. 

The lab technician could then use a microscope to count the number of cells that stick to the microarray. They could then find the count of rare blood cells or bacterial cells. This information could be used to both to diagnose a patient with a specific illness and watch their reaction and the efficacy of treatments used.

By Timothy.ruban - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0Human on a chip.

Some researchers are looking at how they can use this technology to create a human on a chip, where fluids can interact with rudimentary organs in the same way they do in our bodies, and then go on through the circulatory system just as they do in real life. 

Drug testing without impact on life.

Why would we want to make a human on a chip? Well, for starters, for drug testing. Often when we test drugs in a lab we look at a specific organ that the drug is supposed to be helping. For kidney medications, drug developers don’t necessarily look at how that impacts the lungs. Human drug trials are incredibly expensive and have varying reliability. 

If we can create a human on a chip we can easily administer a developed drug to a controlled setting and see the impact on all of the organs. We can also look at just the lungs, kidneys, or heart and the impact of developed drugs for those areas. This would reduce the need for animal trials and leave the human trials until the drug has been extensively tested in a similar system.

How are all of these labs on chip devices related to Lego bricks?

Labs on chips have been around for a long time. I remember looking at joining a lab at the University of Cincinnati after I got my Masters in Physics – this lab was looking at developing these labs on chips. This was back in 2006. Labs on chips aren’t novel, but it is really difficult to make the chips due to the process required to make these chips.

Special substrates and clean rooms and precision oh my!

By National Institute of Standards and Technology (Lab-On-A-Chip; GEMBE) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsCurrently, it takes a lot of precision, modeling, clean room time, and expertise to produce these microfluidic chips. Not only that, but a chip is manufactured for one very specific purpose. If your purpose changes during an experiment you have to go back to the drawing board.

Look at how small the channels are in microfluidic devices. That is insanely small. They are about 250 microns wide. To give you a reference, a human hair is about 150 microns wide. That means these channels are slightly larger than the width of a human hair. 

That tiny size is why these chips are so hard to design, and why researchers are always looking for a better alternative.

Bringing modular building to the lab on a chip.

A group of researchers just presented a new method to make Lego brick lab on chips. These bricks are made from a master mold and engineered to fit together tightly with neighboring bricks, both laterally, from side to side, and vertically, up and down. 

The bricks themselves still have to be made in a clean room with a specialty substrate. However, and this is a big but, once the bricks are created they can be used to create a lab on a chip. They become an amped up Lego piece that can be sued to build, destroy, build again, move around. 

This is a huge boon for lab technicians that might need to quickly alter how two fluids are mixed, or change when a fluid gets filtered. Before you had to go back to the drawing board and build it from the ground up. Now you just need to move around a few Lego bricks!

See it in action and learn about the potential drawbacks in the video below from MIT!

Check out more fun science activities!