Welcome to the first of a 4 part interview series with Dmitry Kashanin, the CTO of Cellix. In this article, we have a look towards the more technical side of the company. How did Dmitry end up in the field of microfluidics and what were the 2 big things he did differently that led to the birth of Cellix?
“So I was doing a PhD in Russia while working as an electronic engineer - focusing on signal acquisition and processing. Basically, after a couple of years, I thought I needed to look for something else, something a bit more advanced and I also wanted to move abroad.
I heard from a friend that there was a job opening in Ireland and that they were specifically looking for someone will a multidisciplinary skillset to develop microfluidic devices. I thought I’d just take a chance. I didn’t know much about the project and what was going to happen.
At the time, I was a physicist with a lot of knowledge of computer science and electronics, microfluidics was a new field for me.
The first years were really difficult but enjoyable. Working in the area of microfluidics was a new challenge which pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Making microfluidic devices myself and trying to understand how they would best be manufactured was something I’d never done before and it ended up being such an important learning experience.
"So this was all very different from what I’d dealt with before but now, as our technology progresses, it's coming more and more back to what I know really well."
At that time, there was a lot of glass in microfluidics as technologies like capillary electrophoresis were reliant on these glass microfluidic devices. There was very little microfluidics done in plastic and moving towards the use of it would allow for more robust and easier to produce devices, which is something we took note of.
Also, people were using microfluidics for assays such as ELISA to detect single proteins and molecules. It was seen as a basic tool. No one had used microfluidics as an environment to study whole cells. Combining a microfluidic device with a specialized pump would create a flowing system for cells, which is a lot closer to their endogenous environment than a petri dish.
Our lab group wanted to do 2 new things - make devices out of plastic instead of glass and work with full cells instead of single compounds. This was something really novel at the time. We wanted to take the next step from studying proteins and receptors to studying full cells using microfluidics. It led to us developing devices and pumps that allowed conditions of blood vessels, capillaries, to be studied. This enabled whole fields of research to develop and discover new information about diseases such as thrombosis. I think in this we spotted a very good area in terms of applications of microfluidics.
So yeah, it was difficult at the beginning, but I had a lot of support from other people. Vivienne joined a year after me, which was a lot of help. She took part in the biological side - testing the devices which I had just learned how to make.
Then we started building in more complexity. I was able to work on improving the abilities of the pumps and the control software and we gradually built it all up to the range of products we have today. Soon we had an engineer working on the project and we were being funded by Enterprise Ireland with a high-tech start-up grant. We made the decision to start up our company in 2006.
So this was all very different from what I’d dealt with before but now, as our technology progresses, it's coming more and more back to what I know really well - electronics and physics. It is still the production of microfluidic devices but it’s the fluidics and mechanics we’re focusing on. We’re currently looking at utilising the tech in cell analysis and sorting for applications such as gene therapy. It involves the integration of many different aspects of biology, physics and engineering within a complex system.
Now it’s more than developing technology to make microfluidic chips. The focus is on fine tuning the chips themselves for novel biological applications. The background in physics and electronics that I have has become necessary for the direction we’re moving in.”
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