New Microfluidic Device for Nerve Cells Developed at UCI

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

11.7.2005 - A new, easily manufactured microfluidic chamber will allow scientists to examine axons in living nerve cells and may lead to a better understanding of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and may be used to screen drugs to overcome spinal cord injuries, according to Calit2 affiliated researchers in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

Biomedical engineer and Calit2 academic participant Noo Li Jeon and colleagues have designed a microfluidic device, which uses tiny volumes of fluid to culture, or grow, neurons. The technology enables live imaging of neurons by fluidically isolating axons from other complex parts of the cell. This method allows researchers to examine and manipulate the axons for their deficiencies in signal propagation, while looking at how they affect particular brain diseases and disorders.

Axons are the threadlike neuron fibers that send information via nerve impulses and other signals throughout the central nervous system.

“Previous solutions were extremely challenging to fabricate and assemble, precluding high-throughput experimentation,” said Jeon, who is a professor in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering. “Our microfluidic culture platform consists of a molded elastomeric polymer piece placed against a glass cover slip. The design incorporates a physical barrier with embedded microgrooves separating two mirror image compartments. Additionally, this method allows us to use 100 times less liquid, therefore reducing costs.”

By developing a device with separate micro-compartments and creating small tunnels to connect the ‘rooms’ of the compartments, Jeon and his team were able to study neuron damage by subjecting axons to different treatments and applications without compromising the entire cell body.

“Microfluidics is becoming an increasingly useful tool for cellular biologists because it allows us to precisely control, monitor and manipulate cellular environments,” Jeon added.   “Through the use of microfluidic chambers, we are able to isolate and direct the growth of axons without the use of neurotrophins, providing a highly adaptable system to model many aspects of neurodegeneration and injury.”

Jeon and his team have applied for a U.S. patent and are currently negotiating a licensing agreement for manufacturing and distribution. They expect that the device will become commercially available by 2007.

Findings are highlighted in the August 2005 edition of Nature Methods magazine, and can be viewed at http://www.nature.com/nmeth/journal/v2/n8/abs/nmeth777.html.

The Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UC Irvine is one of the nation's fastest growing engineering schools, attracting talented engineering faculty and students from across the nation and abroad. The School consists of five departments: biomedical engineering, chemical engineering and materials science, civil and environmental engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, and mechanical and aerospace engineering; and is home to numerous research centers, including the Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility, the National Fuel Cell Research Center, the Center for Embedded Computer Systems, and the Center for Pervasive Communications and Computing. Additionally, it is a major participant in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. Further, more than a third of the School’s 102 faculty members are fellows in professional societies and seven have been elected into the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, please visit www.eng.uci.edu.

About the University of California, Irvine: Celebrating 40 years of innovation, the University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,400 faculty members. The second-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3 billion. For more UCI news, visit www.today.uci.edu.

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