In the second of a four part series with Dmitry Kashanin, we look into the research and innovation that was being done behind the scenes in order to produce the novel products and services Cellix now has on offer. Did Dmitry’s unique approach break through some barriers in the field?
“In terms of microfluidics, there were lots of great developments - plastic devices, lithography processes, injection moulding but what really changed the field was when researchers started making the PDMS devices. PDMS is a soft silicone material you can use to make devices quickly and easily. The material however, ages and is too sensitive to be utilised in industry. But it does allow researchers to try out new things much easier.
It opened up the field completely. Then people started integrating different optics and fluidics because new devices were so much easier to produce.
For us though, we were only working towards industry application and already had an industrial development process for our devices at that stage. We were already selling our systems to biology labs and pharma companies so they couldn’t be made of PDMS. That itself was difficult because the maturity of the tech needs to be very high in order for someone to actually use it in a lab.
It took several years to get the maturity to that point. It involved a lot of beta testing and gathering a lot of feedback from customers.
When I got into microfluidics, people were only using it for capillary electrophoresis. Our lab developed a single-channel chip and a pump to pump cells through. We put that on a microscope then developed some software to count cells and look at their morphology. As far as I’m aware we were some of the first people to do this and we were soon selling to customers.
"We weren’t just looking into device manufacture, we were also tackling the physics, engineering, biology and computer science behind it all."
After several years we developed a pump and chip set that had 8 channels which allowed you to run experiments in parallel. Soon after this, we were asked to integrate cell microscopes, cameras and temperature control - to create a full system. We also had to build new software for this to make it more user-friendly.
Then people wanted to grow cells in our chips. We had to work on protocols to seed cells on the chips and create different types of chips for different forms of microscopy. We also had to develop a pump that allowed cell culture inside an incubator.
So we went from having one chip and one pump to developing a range of different chips, pumps and software to integrate with many types of microscopes, cameras and more. And that was just for one application!
We’ve since decided to include sensing on a chip for cell analysis. We’re not just simply taking images of cells anymore, instead, we’re now analysing thousands of cells in seconds, all in a label-free manner. The next steps for us are to integrate cell sorting and transfection to develop a device that we think will massively increase the ease of manufacturing of cell and gene therapies.
I think we were able to make the progress we did by taking a very multidisciplinary approach to the topic. We weren’t just looking into device manufacture, we were also tackling the physics, engineering, biology and computer science behind it all.
I hope that some of the things we’ve done have enabled and pushed people to grow the field. Initially we didn’t share our research with the scientific community at all. We weren’t going to the conferences or making publications, we were just trying to sell. In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have done that. We should have established ourselves as experts in the area and published our innovations. But our main goal was to sell to biologists and pharmaceutical companies and we did that successfully.
You could see that the things we’d done while selling a commercial product were far ahead of what researchers were doing at the time. For example, I read a paper about growing cells in channels in 2013 while we had done that many years before.
In terms of future directions, I think some of the big challenges to tackle include interfacing with outside instruments, process automation and standardisation. People call it lab-on-a-chip but I don’t think we’ve actually seen this lab so far. We’ve seen pieces of it but not the whole lab.”
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