Small devices to fight a big disease

Detection of dangerous water-borne pathogens will soon be much easier, thanks to advances using microfluidic systems developed at the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication (MCN), the Victorian node of the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF).

A microfluidic wafer. Credit: MCN

Microfluidics deals with the control and manipulation of fluids in tiny, constrained volumes, in order to perform scientific tasks. The advantages in such systems centre around the cost and effort savings associated with miniaturisation and automation.
Additionally microfluidics systems afford interesting opportunities in terms parallelisation—multiple iterations of a process performed in concert for the purposes of high throughput. In this case, MCN has designed a microchip that takes a stream of water and separates out cell-sized impurities, such as Cryptosporidium—the bug responsible for the 1998 Sydney water contamination scare.

“The motivation was to simplify the laborious task of testing for pathogens in natural water systems,” says Dr Sean Langelier of MCN. “The hope was to develop a platform technology that could be extended for use in detection of a broad collection of different bugs.”

The work began in early 2011 in partnership with CSIRO, Monash University and the University of New South Wales, as part of a cluster collaboration dedicated to water quality and sensing in Australia. ANFF’s involvement has been instrumental and nearly all of the fabrication and development work has taken place at the MCN.

“This microfluidic technique will replace laborious bench-scale detection of pathogens by eye, which can take hours, even days,” says Sean. “Other big advantages are that detection can be done in a continuous fashion and the method is scalable for handling larger sample volumes; something that is difficult to achieve using traditional batch filtration methods.”

The device will be part of an integrated system which, in addition to filtration, will possess dedicated operations for detection and quantification of any pathogens present.

“Development of a commercial technology from this work is on the horizon. We need just a bit more time and resources,” says Sean.

 Photo: A microfluidic wafer.
Credit: MCN

Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication, Sean Langelier, Tel: +61 467 296 865,,