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Honey, I Shrunk the Lab

Photonics Spectra
Jan 1998
Kevin Robinson

PRINCETON, N.J. -- In a development reminiscent of Hollywood, chemists may soon find their extensive laboratory set-ups reduced to the size of a small laptop computer. Luckily, the chemists themselves can remain full size.
Using microfabrication and laser technology borrowed from the semiconductor industry, researchers at Orchid Biocomputer have developed a chemical laboratory on a glass tile that is about the size of a credit card.
Orchid Biocomputer is building two families of prototypes of these tiles called Chemtel Microchemical Processors. One family is designed to synthesize new drugs, and the other to conduct DNA analysis for genomics and clinical tests. To manufacture the tiles, the company is experimenting with techniques from the semiconductor industry as well as such techniques as laser ablation, embossing and molding.
According to Dale Pfost, president and CEO of Orchid, the company has a partnership with pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham to develop the devices to speed up the drug development process. He said that currently a drug undergoes about a million different tests in its $400 million, 12-year trek to the market.
Conventional technology allows drug companies to perform approximately 10,000 tests in a week. Pfost said that with the new device -- an interconnected series of tiles about the size of a sheet of paper -- that time should drop to about a day, depending on the process. This decrease will mean other decreases in the race to discover new drugs and test new molecules. Pfost said that the numbers of molecules needing to be tested is growing fast and that traditional technology cannot keep pace.
The tiles themselves are composed of many vessels and channels, some only micrometers thick. The chemical reagents flow into the tiles through ports on the edges that are similar to the electrical connectors on the edges of an integrated circuit. A computer controls the flow by changing the electrical charges of the chemicals at various points on the tile.
Pfost expects Orchid's fabrication facilities to be set up in one to two years. The company will focus on producing custom tiles for its partners with plans to introduce commercial tiles a few years off.
As the trend toward miniaturization continues, we can only hope that ingenious companies will turn their shrink beams on things that really need a nip and tuck; piles of dirty laundry and dishes, junk e-mail and interoffice memorandums.


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