“Personalized medicine will be key in the future”

Q&A with Govind Kaigala

Govind Kaigala, scientist at IBM Research – Zurich since May of 2010, is a member of the team working on the microfluidic probe. Govind joined IBM after completing a post-doc at Stanford University and a PhD from the University of Alberta in Canada.

Blog moderator: Congratulations on today’s publication in Lab on a Chip of your innovative proof-of-concept technology called the microfluidic probe.

GK: Thanks, my co-authors and I are glad this paper has been accepted in Lab on a Chip.

Q: This novel silicon probe could possibly become a very useful tool in disease diagnostics and drug design. The scientific article describes the microfluidic probe to quite an accessible extent even for non-specialists, but what we’d like to know from you personally is: What inspired you to work on this?

GK: The idea of a microfluidic probe (MFP) had been evolving within our group for a couple of years before I joined IBM, but no one was assigned to work on this topic exclusively. I was hired to focus on this project, and that gave it a little more momentum. Using the probe with tissue sections too has been around in this group for some time. However, it was not until a Master’s student, Marios Georgiadis, from ETH Zurich joined our team that we decided this may be the opportunity to take on this project.

Q: What was the “Aha!” moment?

GK: Oh, that’s difficult to pinpoint. But, when we were first able to visualize liquid at the apex of the MFP head through a tissue section, we were very excited. There were other moments, like when we overstained a tissue section using the MFP quickly—much faster than conventional times—implying there also existed a time advantage in using this approach.

Q: What precisely makes this new technology so interesting for pathology?

GK: The essential aspect of this technology is that it allows a tiny biopsy tissue sample to be used more efficiently. For example, our publication refers to the need to determine optimal conditions to perform staining.

It’s like the traditional film-development process: if you underexpose or overexpose the film, you don’t get optimal results. There is a strong parallel in the case of pathology. A pathologist draws on years and years of experience to find the optimal conditions for performing tests. The present approach limits pathologists to using a single or a few markers on a tissue section, which restricts “how many questions” they can ask—and therefore how many answers they can get!

With this technology, once the optimal conditions are determined for a given marker and tissue, the pathologist may be able to apply this to a range of chemicals and yet use a limited amount of tissue.

Performing multiple tests rapidly with varying conditions on limited tissue would aid pathologists in making a decision on specific tissue sections in a more quantitative manner. Our device may therefore contribute to personalized medicine, which will be key in the future.

Q: Do you have any other fields in mind where your tool could have a significant impact?

GK: (Laughs) Oh, we have many more ideas. In drug discovery, for example, cells have to be exposed to a range of concentrations of different candidate molecules—this could easily be done with our technology.

Q: Where to you see this technology in 3-5 years?

GK: There are distinct paths we believe this technology may evolve along.

In the longer term, we hope this technology will be licensed and adopted by a pathology-based company to develop a user-friendly “closed” system, which would lend itself to the diagnostic process.

In the short term, we hope this would be widely used as a high-end tool much like a microscope within research laboratories—this would be an “open” system with full access to tubing, connectors and heads.

Q: What did pathologists say when you shared the probe with them?

GK: They love the idea. They think it could be very useful because they are incredibly keen to get more and better information from the tissue samples they work with.

Also, what interests them is that our probe doesn’t change the conventional pathology workflow. If you make drastic changes, it’s not easy to have something percolate rapidly down to the practical level!

Q: So you’re hoping this could be the next big advance in the field of diagnostics?

GK: It’s not “the” solution. It’s but one possible solution that we think is technically pretty cool and may have implications in diagnostic pathology. Of course, we have to remain realistic—this kind of thing takes years to develop and has to go though regulatory authorities before entering the market. It’s not around the corner—but we will likely see such technology used in pathology within our lifetime. We hope to see its impact sooner from its use in research laboratories.

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