Professor Aaron Wheeler earned his PhD from Stanford University and, after a two-year postdoc fellowship at UCLA, joined the faculty of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. He has won numerous awards and honours for his work in the field of microfluidics and is the associate editor of Lab on a Chip.
Wheeler’s lab develops lab-on-a-chip technology with the main focus on digital microfluidics (DMF) platforms that can be used for various chemical, biological and medical applications. I heard Professor Wheeler talk about his team’s fascinating work and interviewed him so that Signals’ readers would know more about this interesting topic.
Your background is in chemistry and your research projects are more geared towards life-sciences and biomedical engineering. What attracted you to such topics?
My undergraduate major was chemistry and I loved chemistry, but I realized that my true interest lay more in the physical and engineering worlds. I always enjoyed building new instruments and coming up with new ways to use them. So, during undergraduate degree, I looked around and found this group of scientists called analytical chemists. They were building interesting instruments and trying to apply them in ways to answer life sciences questions. And, I fell in love with that idea. It was an exciting career path for me and I’ve been in it ever since.
Along the way, I have also truly enjoyed participating in the world of biomedical engineering. Half of my group now is made up of chemists and the other half are biomedical engineers. I think that is a good match to do interesting things.
Most of your projects revolve around the technology of digital microfluidics. Can you tell us a little more about it?
In digital microfluidics, the platform is made up of two distinct layers: one contains an array of electrodes, which is covered by the second hydrophobic insulator layer (eg. Teflon). Liquid droplets can be manipulated, mixed or separated and guided towards different electrodes through fluid-handling techniques.
Such droplet manipulation abilities can be used in various lab testing assays such as enzymatic immuno-assays, proteomics and DNA analysis assays, and cell-based applications. The amount of time and sample size needed to run such assays on the DMF platforms is significantly lower compared to the traditional techniques. Similarly, in clinical diagnostic testings, such as infectious disease diagnostics, much smaller sample sizes are needed and the test will be performed faster.
One of the nice aspects of academia is that you get the freedom to try interesting things. In my group we try and use microfluidics for lots of different applications.
Some of these projects focus on important work with real world uses. For instance, I have a group of postdocs and students who just got back from a trip to a refugee camp in Kenya where they were using our devices to do infectious disease diagnosis. The devices performed really well and we are very eager to come up with different ways to make them available to people who don’t have regular access to doctors.
Watch this video to learn more about how Wheeler’s devices are used in the field.
On the other hand, we do work in our lab that doesn’t have a current application for the medical world, just because we want to improve the microfluidics technique. For instance, one of my students made flexible devices in different shapes such as roller-coaster shapes, upside down spirals, etc., and we investigated how fluids and droplets behave and how can they be manipulated on those types of shapes.
Is there a specific area that you are more passionate about in your research and what is the challenge?
Novel things. The newer the idea is, the more excited we get, which is kind of true for all researchers in academia. At the same time this leads to a kind of a gap between what academia does and what is useful for the rest of the world.
When a topic is new it’s very exciting, but it is also very rough – the kinks have not been worked out yet, and there are lots of technical challenges. Thus, while the academician has introduced the novel idea, he usually won’t spend the time to smooth out the technical hurdles and make the device robust, useful and reproducible for the rest of the world.
Therefore, I think the big challenge is in the last 10 percent: taking a new method and making it work 100 percent of the time, even when operated by people outside of the lab who don’t have technical expertise.
What I really enjoyed about our lab’s trip to Kenya was that it was the first time we had taken our devices outside of the lab environment. This time it was my lab members operating the devices, but for the next generation devices, we want to make them easy enough to be used by anyone.
Do you think in your field of work one of the main challenges would also be operation of the devices and data analysis?
Mainly production of the devices would be a hurdle. The data analysis is something that we, as scientists, are pretty good at, but making enough devices and making them in a way so they behave the same 100 percent of the time is a real challenge. That’s something that industry is very good at, but academia is not.
On the other hand, there are lots of good ideas that get invented in academia that never go anywhere because that gap doesn’t get crossed. More recently, we have started to think more and more about that gap and how we can possibly bridge it because if we have something useful we would like for the world to use it.
The interesting technique that your lab uses reminds me of the initial promise the embattled Theranos made. Why didn’t it succeed?
Unfortunately, Theranos did us all a huge disservice, since now everyone is wary of these type of technologies.
There are an enormous number of detailed engineering and analytical steps that are extremely challenging and have to be carefully solved. For example, there is this existing body of knowledge that is pretty close to doing the things that Theranos wanted to do, but this only came about after many years of research and hard work and optimizing and developing incremental advances.
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?
My advice to entrepreneurs is to cultivate an ability to describe a dream and sell people on that dream, but at the same time maintain a very close connection to the very rigorous uncompromising principles that make science work: you have a hypothesis, you test it and you describe the results of that hypothesis without claiming anything beyond that hypothesis. You have to be able to sell a vision for the future – and the Theranos leadership had that ability – but you also need to pair it with the scientists and engineers working on solving the problems. Then, you would have the perfect package.
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