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A micro revolution for life sciences

by Michèle Nardelli

UniSA leads international research consortium project

The development of the integrated circuit or microchip revolutionised notions of size in electronics and electronic engineering, making what was once considered fanciful, possible - the mobile phone, the PC, digital photography, the list goes on.

Now UniSA researchers are on a quest to similarly shake up the world of life sciences by developing tiny chemical testing tools that promise to benefit disease diagnostics and the efficacy of discovery and development of new drug compounds.

And while the research is still in part hypothetical, it has attracted a huge $1.323 million in funding internationally.

UniSA’s Professor Rob Short, Professor Hans Griesser and Dr David Steele lead the Micron-scale Surface Chemical Gradients Collaboration, which brings together researchers from the Universities of Illinois and Liverpool and UniSA’s Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Ian Wark Research Institute.

Prof Short said if the research was successful it could represent the embryonic stage of an entirely new industry.

"What we hope to achieve is the development of fine scale (micrometer) chemical patterns and gradients on surfaces that will be relevant to exploring biological events on the cellular scale length."

Prof Short has already fabricated surface chemical gradients and demonstrated their utility in biological
studies, but this was at the centimetre scale.

"The goal now is to perfect something as small as 100 to 200 micrometres," he said. "If we are successful we would be the first to do it."

The applications for the new tools could be vast.

"In principle, these tools have the potential to define differences in cancer cells or attributes of compounds that may be used in the development of new and more effective drugs."

Prof Short said the tools had the potential to improve, broaden and speed up testing across the life science research field – both speeding up research times and adding to cost effectiveness.

Australian funding for the project was awarded under the Building Australia’s Capacity initiative through the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training.