'Fit-to-Flow' fluid connector: Medicine's USB

Biomedical engineers at UC Davis unveil a plug-in interface they compare to USB to connect microfluidics to electronic devices for biological and chemical testing on the go.

Cell phones with sophisticated cameras are already being fitted with microscopes for mobile, in-the-field testing. Connecting microfluids to these cell phones, however, has proved to be its own challenge.

The Fit-to-Flow connector next to a USB flash drive for scale. Tingrui Pan/UC Davis

So biomedical engineers at UC Davis have developed what they call a Fit-to-Flow fluid connector (F2F for short) they compare to the USB interface, through which microfluids can be connected to electronic devices for biological and chemical testing.

They filed a provisional patent on November 1 and published a paper describing the chip on November 25 in the journal Lab on a Chip.

"We think there is a huge need for an interface to bridge microfluidics to electronic devices," says Tingrui Pan, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis who, with graduate student Arnold Chen, invented the chip and co-authored the paper.

Pan says their connector, which uses tiny channels a few micrometers across cut into a plastic membrane, should be able to be integrated with a standard peripheral component interconnect (PCI) device, with an embedded micropump providing the on-demand self-propelled power.

By using a standard connection, chips for different tests could be plugged into the same device, such as a laptop or cell phone, to test, display, store, and transmit the data. The potential uses for this kind of microfluidic connector could span several fields and include medical diagnoses, food safety testing, and environmental monitoring.

The work was funded through a UC Davis fellowship to Chen and a National Science Foundation Career Award to Pan.

Update Nov. 30 at 3:42 p.m. PT: In response to a reader's question: To clarify, this F2F connector works much like Universal Serial Bus (USB). Disposable chips that hold fluids on a micro or even nano scale (hence the term microfluidics) are inserted into a block. Prof. Pan tells me that he envisions this kind of connection living next to the USB port on the side of, say, a laptop, into which people can insert the chip to read, say, a blood sample and then throw that chip away. The fluid is trapped inside the chip but able to be read by the block the chip fits into. This is indeed a unique invention, to the best of Pan's knowledge, and could make for affordable, fast, and highly mobile diagnosing of diseases, monitoring of glucose levels, etc.