Published: Nov. 18, 2019

Students solder a biochip during the Personal Biochip workshop.

Students solder a biochip during the Summer 2019 Personal Biochips workshop at University of Colorado Boulder's ATLAS Institute.

Making healthcare more affordable, effective and personal is one of the greatest challenges of our time. The Living Matter Lab, ATLAS Institute's newest research lab, is rising to that challenge; the lab builds devices that could potentially be used by patients to perform their own medical tests at home.

In particular, the lab explores the development of compact and highly configurable digital microfluidic biochips, small machines that move tiny droplets of fluid, such as blood or urine. Instead of lab technicians adding reagents, antigens and other solutions to biological samples in numerous time-consuming steps, the new programmable microfluidic biochips use electrical voltage to transport and combine droplets of fluid across an array of small electrodes, moving biological samples to combine with reagents, replicating the exact procedures that happen in the laboratory.

"This approach to healthcare innovation is a major shift from current norms," says Mirela Alistar, assistant professor of computer science with the ATLAS Institute and the lab's director. "It's an opportunity to push the boundaries of technology in ways that disrupt and democratize the way we access healthcare."

Giving individuals more control of their healthcare by providing better home diagnostics can lower costs and increase access to care, she adds.Person using a tablet to control droplets on the OpenDrop biochip

This summer Alistar taught "Personal Biochips," a workshop where students built microfluidic biochips, learned how to program them using an automatic compiler and developed a bio-protocol that put them to work. The students worked in interdisciplinary groups, collaborated to develop new ideas, and engaged in discussions with senior researchers to identify current challenges and future directions of the field. 

The workshop, which filled to a capacity of 25 participants, engaged a diverse group of students—postdoctoral, PhD, master's and undergraduate students–from North America, Europe and Asia. 

"It has the potential to really put a lot of control in the hands of people who aren't experts in either biology or engineering, allowing them to run their own tests at home," says Jacob Ritchie, a participant in the Personal Biochip workshop and Stanford University PhD student. "Instead of sending blood samples to a lab, you would have them in this tiny device that you can take anywhere. That's the promise of the technology."

Alistar says that successful development of this technology depends on the contributions of many disciplines: computer science, nanotechnology, biology and microbiology, genetics, social science, art and others.

"Working at the intersection of different disciplines is engaging and exciting,” Alistar says.