Faster, cheaper chemical reactions in miniature
Microfluidic bioreactors allow chemical reactions to take place on a very small scale, saving time, money and materials. An EU-funded project has developed microfluidic bioreactor technologies that could lead to a wide range of applications, including innovative medicines.
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Many modern industries are interested in the potential of bio-manufacturing harnessing the power of reactions driven by biological molecules and processes to create useful chemicals such as medicines. But it can be difficult and expensive to optimise biological processes, which require lots of tweaks and tests to produce the right product.
The EU-funded EUROMBR project focused on how to solve this problem, scaling up the number of test reactions that can be done at one time by making the volume of each individual reaction much smaller. This was achieved by using microfluidic bioreactors devices built from tiny vessels and tubes in which the chemical reactions take place.
Imagine you can do a chemical reaction in a small cup instead of a big bucket, explains project coordinator Ulrich Krühne of the Technical University of Denmark in Kongens Lyngby. Then scale that down to a thimble and go even smaller to a tiny capillary. Youre saving money as you dont need such big volumes of reagents. Its faster and more efficient because the molecules are closer together, and you can run many reactions in parallel at the same time.
Microfluidic bioreactors are also safer than conventional large-scale reactors. Because they are so much smaller, the risk of explosions or accidents is greatly reduced, and any toxic products will only be produced in extremely small amounts.
The EUROMBR team researched many aspects of microfluidic reactor technology, from the design and control of the reactors themselves to the development of tiny sensors to monitor the reactions taking place inside. Some team members built computer software for analysing and interpreting the data gathered from reactions, while others worked with start-up companies to translate new bioreactor technologies into industrial applications.
One specific application of this technology is in research into biocatalysts biological molecules known as enzymes, which carry out chemical reactions inside living cells. Specific enzymes can be purified and trapped inside a microfluidic bioreactor, allowing researchers to test many enzyme and reagent combinations to find the ones that are most efficient at producing useful chemicals.
Flowing into the future
A further part of the project involved communication and outreach, including producing an award-winning short film explaining the idea behind microreactor technology and the advantages of taking reactions down to a small scale.
The project received funding through the EUs Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme. Eleven early stage researchers participated. EUROMBR also hosted a series of training workshops, inspiring and training the next generation of microfluidics researchers. Beneficiary Claudia Gärtner won third prize in the EU Women Innovators awards for setting up her biotechnology company microfluidic ChipShop. She has developed a device that can detect diseases such as cancer from a single drop of blood.
Krühne hopes that the momentum gathered by EUROMBR will continue, creating more ideas and commercial opportunities for this exciting new technology. There are almost endless possible applications, from the discovery and development of new medicines and medical devices without using animal testing, to finding solutions to environmental problems, such as the need for green energy and clean drinking water.
When you look at a reactor on the tip of your finger, its breathtaking, but we need to make sure these ideas dont just die out, says Krühne. This is going to be the technology of the future and Id like to see more companies getting interested and applying it to their own product development.