CU Boulder computer science assistant professor Mirela Alistar wants to make healthcare more personal. Her work with microfluidic biochips is getting us there. Here, the director of the ATLAS Institute’s Living Matter Lab discusses her biochips, in-home testing and melding science with art.
What brought you to CU?
I was ready to start my own research group, so I embarked on an exciting journey of applying to more than 100 universities for a faculty position. While interviewing all over the world, I was impressed with the interdisciplinarity of ATLAS Institute, with CU’s ambition and drive to support young faculty and with Boulder’s natural beauty and progressive culture. Needless to say, choosing CU Boulder was the easiest decision I ever made.
What is your main intention with the Living Matter Lab?
As the name says, I am interested in living matter, especially in its non-human form. In the Living Matter Lab, we explore the connection between humans and the life around us by focusing on personal healthcare. Specifically, we are investigating how far we can push healthcare into the hands of people by the means of technology. To do this, we develop biochip instruments that can be used at home by people for various medical applications.
Can you describe these instruments?
Biochips are small electronic devices that manipulate droplets of fluids by executing bio-protocols — programs that move, split and mix droplets containing chemical compounds (reagents). Biochips automate processes traditionally performed in wet labs. The key advantage of biochips is that they are adaptable, thus capable of running different bio-protocols. Instead of going to a specialist, a patient can download a bio-protocol.
Why do we need biochips?
Microfluidics is the engineering that figures out how to manipulate fluids in very small amounts, at micro level. You see, fluids at large scale — the coffee in your cup, the water coming from the tap — behave very differently than when in very small amounts. To give you an idea of how small we are talking, the size of a rain droplet is about 20 microliters [one-millionth of a liter] and that is around the maximum size approached with microfluidics. Such tiny amounts of fluids are hard to manipulate because they have a strong surface tension that has to be overcome. Biochip instruments are able to manipulate such droplets in the picoliter [a trillionth of a liter] range.
What sort of tests might people perform with these?
Biochips have been shown to be able to perform basic tests, such as detecting the glucose levels on physiological fluids such as blood, saliva, urine and serum. We are working on developing a procedure that allows biochips to test for bacterial and viral infections.
Could these biochips detect coronaviruses or other viral infections?
I am working on developing biochips that can perform ELISA [enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay], a standard procedure used to detect viral infections. ELISA is currently used as one of the methods of testing for [the novel] coronavirus. We do hope during the next year we will have a biochip that can run ELISA, and that means it will be able to detect various viral infections. I am also aware and even had collaborated with other research labs working on the same problem. However, even if any of us are successful in developing such biochips, they will still need quite a few years of development until approved to be used as a diagnosis tool.
What do you see them being used for the most initially?
I foresee a progressive roadmap for biochips, where they first will be adopted by doctors as an effective way of performing quick tests, an essential step in differential diagnosis. Then, I see a lot of potential for biochips to be used in mobile settings, such as during traveling or outdoor activities. Finally, biochips will empower patients to perform selected tests at home, as part of their decision whether to see a doctor.
How could these change our healthcare system?
Similar to how mobile computing has enabled over 60% of the population to solve a wide range of problems by means of software, I believe that biochips will change how people interact with a wide range of healthcare processes. In the long run, I believe biochips will lead to democratizing healthcare, and to a process that moves away from the current ‘one size fits all’ concept towards more personalized care.
Are there non-health uses for these biochips?
Yes, for example, researchers at University of Washington forked one of our older biochip devices and are using it for DNA computing. That means they embed DNA inside the droplets and use the droplet mixing and splitting to perform operations on the information contained in the DNA. I am also aware of people that replicated our biochips to use them for perfume mixing. One of the students in my class is designing a biochip that tells the time, basically a clock with fluids.
What other things are you working on right now?
Apart from personal healthcare, we have a second angle to approach our work in the Living Matter Lab. This angle is an artistic one, where we explore and design interactions and tangible interfaces between humans and non-human life. Examples of current projects include designing an escape room where humans and dinoflagellates [algae] collaborate to find the exit, developing do-it-yourself spirulina bioreactors for at-home use and inventing biomaterials that allow kids to grow their own toys and people to ‘cook’ their own clothes.
What do you do outside of your work?
I am focused right now on building a strong community in Boulder that engages in sci-art and bio-art. I would love to see science, technology and art coming together in interactive installations and performances available to the public at large.
Interview condensed and edited.
Illustration by TheiSpot/ Keith Negley