Tiny Test Tubes

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, Ca, January 25th, 2013 --Startup company Biopico Systems is pushing the boundaries of the “lab on a chip” concept to picoliter scale. Founder John Collins and his staff are tapping the pumping and mixing capabilities of biofluidics to engineer a tiny chip that can process millions of separate biochemical reactions simultaneously.

TechPortal tenant Biopico Systems builds picoliter-volume chips, opening the door to millions of individual biochemical reactions occuring on a single chip.

Depending on the number of reactions required, the size of the chip will vary from one square centimeter to slightly larger than a credit card.

The key is tiny individual chambers – a mere picoliter in volume. A million times smaller than a microliter, a picoliter is just large enough to contain a single human cell. To offer perspective: one fluid ounce contains nearly 30 billion picoliters.

Collins is president of Biopico Systems, which recently made Calit2’s TechPortal its home. He envisions technologies offering a wide range of applications, from diagnosing cancer and infectious diseases to characterizing stem cells used in therapies for trauma patients; from monitoring humans exposed to toxic materials to measuring the efficacy of drugs mid-treatment.

Different reagents can be used to seek information about different types of cells, and each reaction is digitally measured and analyzed. These measurements yield information about the character of the cells -- how many are cancer or leukemia cells, for example, or specific varieties of stem cells. The approach is more efficient and reliable than current procedures, which test much larger samples in a single reactor and process results slowly, in stages.

“The advantage with picoliter-volume reactions is that they’re high-throughput,” Collins says. “If we can put one cell in every [chamber], we can do thousands or millions of reaction on one chip.”

The ultimate goal is a user-friendly platform that can be used on-site by clinicians, biologists and other researchers who need to distinguish one type of cell from another.

Biopico Systems, which was formed in May 2011, is funded with SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. After completing projects for those two sponsors, the company plans to seek additional funding.

Collins, who was a UC Irvine postdoctoral researcher from 2000 to 2006, has subcontracts with his former advisor, Prof. Abe Lee, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and several researchers. Prototype chips are manufactured at INRF and produced in larger quantities in Lee’s lab.

“It could take a couple of years to get the whole system out,” Collins says. “But once we get the picoliter high-throughput system perfected we have a few ideas about how to apply that to several areas of diagnostics and research.”