Imagine a small flat 3×1 square of clear glass. On top rests another piece of glass with small holes open to the square underneath.
Now imagine if a full-scale wet lab – complete with rows of flasks, tubes, pumps and a centrifuge – could fit on this miniature surface.
If you’re Virginia Tech cancer researcher Iuliana Lazar, that’s your goal.
“This is the lab-on-a-chip concept,” said Lazar, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science. “Essentially you have an entire lab shrunk down to a few square-inch chip. The plan is to integrate various functional [lab] elements by minimizing their size or developing new designs and new principles that will allow scientists to accomplish new experiments.”
Recently her work was highlighted in an interview with International Innovation, a freely accessible journal which contacted Lazar last year.
This lab-on-a-chip technology will decrease the amount of time it takes to prep and study cells in a lab. It will also allow Lazar and other researchers to capture what’s going on in cancer cells earlier than what can usually be accomplished with standard technology in a full-scale wet lab setting.
“The beginning of the cell signaling process happens very fast, so even a simple lab procedure such as cell harvesting will perturb the entire process,” said Lazar, whose work is currently supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
“So, what we have suggested instead,” Lazar continued, “is to stimulate the cells on the chip, then perform a quick lysis procedure with an electrical field. This will instantly release the cell’s content to enable further analysis, which would allow us to capture events that otherwise cannot be monitored unless the cells have been subjected to special treatments or genetic modifications.”
Lazar designs this technology to specifically look at the phosphorylation of proteins – a process occurring in early stages of cell stimulation that can inform how cancer cells code for proteins, grow, and further proliferate.
“We also look at differential protein expression,” said Lazar, who is also a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate. “This information then is used to infer some biological mechanism to figure out how cancer cells early on bypass the restriction point and manage to move through the cell cycle.”
So far, she has developed three chip-sized systems that mimic laboratory procedures, two of which she has patents on. Now the trick is integrating all three into one.
“We hope this will open the door, perhaps a new field, to a completely new way of analyzing and looking at the disease,” she said.