Healthcare - Lab-on-a-Chip

Electrical engineering is everywhere. The healthcare sector is no exception. Loes Segerink and Mathieu Odijk work as researchers at Lab-on-a-Chip, a multidisciplinary research group where electrical engineering is essential – no, elementary.

BIOS Lab-on-a-Chip: all backgrounds are accounted for

Odijk: ‘I studied Electrical Engineering myself, while Loes (Segerink) has a background in biomedical technology. That is nothing unusual at BIOS Lab-on-a-Chip. Chemistry, biology, physics: all backgrounds are accounted for here. At the same time, we are an excellent match for electrical engineering, I think.’ Odijk continues: ‘For lab-on-a-chip, sensing – the collection of data – is essential. Using electrical currents, we control and study fluids on a chip. The most famous example is the UT spin-off Medimate. This at-home testing device measures the amount of lithium in a person’s blood. On the chip, a drop of blood flows through the fluid channels under the influence of an electrical field. Small changes in the conductivity make it possible to measure the concentration of lithium in the blood. Lithium is an important component in antidepressants, but too much of it can be dangerous. Under professional guidance, manic-depressive patients can measure the lithium content in their blood at home using the testing device, so the correct dose of lithium can be calculated with great precision.’

Fertility chip

Segerink: ‘My own research is dedicated to measuring cells. With our fertility chip, we measure the number of sperm cells and their quality with electrodes. Normally, a few million sperm cells are available, but some men have fewer than twenty. The fertility chip makes it possible to select the right sperm cell, which increases the chance of a successful fertilisation. At the moment, this selection process is completely random. I am working hard to make the fertility chip suitable for clinical laboratories. If I succeed, it will appear on the market in just a few years.’

Needle to detect neurotransmitters and electrical signals in brains

Odijk: ‘I am working on a needle that tries to detect neurotransmitters and electrical signals in the brain. These neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of our brain. We use our needle to research severe migraine episodes. What happens in a patient’s brain during such an attack? What causes migraines? Does anything precede an episode? Those are the questions we are trying to answer. I have a personal stake in the research. At one time in her life, my sister suffered migraine attacks two or three times a month. That gave me a strong motivation to dedicate myself to this research.’

Future applications of electrical engineering in the healthcare sector

Both Odijk and Segerink ultimately want to develop a tool that will make it possible to bring their research to market. What are the future applications of electrical engineering in the healthcare sector?

Odijk: ‘When I think about the future, I expect the smartphone to play an even bigger part in our lives. The power of such an enormous platform will allow us to do more in terms of prevention. On a technological level, it is already possible to plug a chip into a smartphone and analyse someone’s blood. The screen will show something along the lines of ‘Go see your general practioner.’’

Segerink: ‘At the same time, there is a consideration to make. Should we really measure and know everything? That might have some serious implications. There is no point in releasing measurement technology on the market if there are no treatment methods to accompany it. That would only make someone unhappy.’

Credits: U-Today, Jelle Posthuma

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