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Biochips - Microsystems Technology for the Life Sciences

Nowadays, microsystems technology is found virtually everywhere, whether it is in notebooks, cars or heating systems. It is also set to become increasingly important in medicine and biotechnology: nanometre-size robots and intelligent measurement systems in arteries, or ingernail-size DNA chips enabling the analysis of hundreds of genes in the tiniest amounts of sample.

Miniaturisation is what it’s all about, whether in the field of electronics, sensor systems or the handling of liquids. Over the last few years, a research field with an ever-increasing potential has emerged at the interface between physics, the engineering sciences, chemistry, biology and computer sciences.

Carl Friedrich Benz, Karlsruhe-born and with a fondness for bicycles, made a name for himself in the automotive industry thanks to his invention of a three-wheeler automobile with a rear-mounted engine. The creation was patented on 29th January 1886 and it was named the Benz Patent Motorwagen. It was the first automobile to combine two things, a horse carriage and Otto’s four-stroke engine. Back then, the Otto engine was already being used to drive a broad range of machines. However, these engines were often as big as, or bigger than, a modern compact car. Benz had to reduce the engine size before the first versions of what have now become Mercedes Benz cars could enter production. Around a century later, researchers and developers, in industry and the life sciences alike, are faced with a similar problem.

Mobile diagnostics, personalised micromedicine, intelligent implants - these are the keywords of the future. It is possible for these visions to become reality thanks to the emergence of a discipline that has become increasingly important over the last few years. Microsystems technology is no longer science fiction. Today it is already possible to design and develop applications in the laboratories and think-tanks of engineers, physicists, chemists and computer scientists that are so small that they can barely be seen with the naked eye. The trend is towards miniaturisation combined with an increase in performance. It is not just laptops and industrial injection systems that need to be small and powerful; the diagnosis of diseases or the high-throughput screening of the tiniest amounts of substances in the drug discovery process are also included in this move towards miniaturisation - medicine, pharmacy and biological research will in the future benefit from such miniaturised systems. It is estimated that a one-per cent increase in the cost of in vitro diagnostics, an important field of application of microsystems technology, will lead to healthcare savings of around five per cent. In Germany, this would amount to more than ten billion euros per year.

Biochips, or microarrays, are excellent examples of technical optimisations developed using microsystems technology. Ten years ago, molecular biology experiments had to be done manually. Nowadays, robots are able to print hundreds of samples on a fingernail-size slide in a very short time, something that is known as high-throughput. These samples are then probed with cells, enzymes or DNA and analysed. Such experiments help scientists to screen and compare entire genomes of organisms. In the pharmaceutical industry, microarrays are used to assess the effect of large numbers of unknown substances on biological material. This leads to the discovery of pharmaceutically active substances that are able to remedy diseases. Since the availability of biological material (e.g., specific enzymes) is limited, the developers of biochips are focusing on reducing the amount of liquid to be spotted onto the chips. This cannot be effectively achieved without microsystems technology as the dosing of microlitre volumes, which are exposed to strong physical forces, requires the use of special materials and methods.

Business field with a great future Microsystems technology is already a driver of technological progress. This also has economic implications. According to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the German microsystems technology industry has a total workforce of 766,000 employees. In 2009, the sales volume was more than 82 billion euros, and this is expected to rise, reaching annual growth rates of up to ten per cent. The German government has put in place a "High-Tech Strategy" programme to fund this key technology; the BMBF has set aside around 80 million euros in funding for the field of microsystems technology in 2010 (Information and Communication Technologies (IKT 2020)). 490 application-oriented research projects receive government funds totalling 184 million euros. A Baden-Württemberg microsystems technology cluster initiative was a winner of the second round of Germany's top cluster competition and is now being provided with funding. The MicroTEC Südwest cluster, coordinated by researchers from Freiburg, is mainly focused on applying microsystems technology in the life sciences.

What problems arise in the development of microscopically small systems such as biochips? Where does the major potential lie in the biosciences, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries? How are the life sciences currently benefitting from these technologies? And what will tomorrow's benefit be? The "Microsystems Technology/Biochips" dossier provides insights into the potential of miniaturisation and related aspects.

Source: BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH

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