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Droplet Microfluidics & High Throughput Screening for Drug Recovery

Cell-based assays for high throughput screening represent an exciting new frontier in the race to discover and develop tomorrow’s new blockbuster drugs. This paradigm-shifting technology can be used to harness the potential of single mammalian cells, encapsulated with appropriate reagents, to serve as microreactors. When combined with high throughput screening, this allows for the rapid evaluation of unprecedentedly large volumes of drug candidate molecules. In this instance, the use of “rapid” sidesteps hyperbole: Up to thousands of samples per second may be evaluated using this approach.

These “microbioreactors,” made possible by droplet microfluidic technology, have enabled pharmaceutical researchers to identify viable candidate molecules more readily than ever — while slashing drug discovery costs. The aqueous “microdroplets” at the heart of this promising technology consist of individual cells dispersed in immiscible carrier oil. By measuring cell growth — or inhibition — within individual microdroplets, it’s possible to evaluate multiple candidate molecules (for cytotoxic affects against cancerous cells, for example).

Benefits of Microfluidics-Based Technology

This relatively new technology depends on droplet-based microfluidics to generate viable microdroplets for use in high throughput biological assays. Among other advantages, the emerging technology provides for intracellular differences that may arise as a natural result of cellular biology. The technology facilitates single-cell analysis, including genomic, transcriptomic and proteomic studies, at the intracellular level. It may also serve as a platform to evaluate various properties of individual cells, including biochemical and biophysical properties.

Even better, whole transcriptome or genomic analyses can be performed in a massively parallel manner, using minimal reagents and thousands of individual cells simultaneously. Thus, time and resources devoted to drug discovery can be reduced dramatically. This revolutionary drug discovery approach is enabling companies to newly evaluate — or re-evaluate — entire libraries of candidate molecules in record time; a win-win for both pharmaceutical companies and patients who may eventually benefit from these important discoveries.

Droplet microfluidics is an offshoot of microfluidics itself. It involves the creation of vanishingly small microdroplets, ranging from tens to hundreds of micrometers in diameter, and consisting of one fluid within another (typically hydrophobic). Not surprisingly, producing these ultra-small droplets depends on microfluidics technology, in which minuscule amounts of fluids are processed by forcing them under high pressure through microscale channels within a homogenizer’s interaction chamber.

The Future of Droplet Microfluidics

Slightly more than a decade ago, researchers at University of Washington published research detailing their innovative methodology for achieving microfluidic-based droplet generation combined with optical trapping. The process allows for the controlled encapsulation of a single “target” — meaning anything from a subcellular structure (such as an organelle) to an entire living cell — in a picoliter, or even femtoliter amount of aqueous substrate, which is then encapsulated in an immiscible substance.

Needless to say, successfully trapping a single, unaccompanied cell consistently involved overcoming significant technological hurdles. Since then, scientists have rushed to develop and refine this technology, making advances such as microfluidic chip technology possible. The ability to study single, viable cells in real time is viewed as a profound breakthrough, with implications not only for the pharmaceutical industry, but also for a broad range of potential applications. Of course, none of this would have been possible without advanced microfluidics technology.

Microfluidizer® homogenizer / processors represent the vanguard of this technological revolution. We’re a global leader in the design, manufacture and servicing of cutting-edge, high-shear fluid processors. Our machines have been enlisted by researchers around the world, often serving a key role in pioneering work that has opened the door to this remarkably innovative approach to new drug discovery and development. If you are interested in learning more about this exciting technology, and how you can join the revolution, we urge you to contact us.

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