It might seem surprising that a company best known for its printers, laptops, and other consumer-focused devices is exploring opportunities in the life sciences, acknowledges HP Labs researcher Anita Rogacs.
“But at the heart of every HP printer is a very sophisticated microfluidic chip able to manipulate fluids with a performance unparalleled to almost any other industrial solution today,” Rogacs explains. “And microfluidics is one of the most exciting areas in the life sciences at present because it affords an opportunity for decentralization and automation of the biochemical and analytical processes associated with diagnostics, testing, and screening.”
As project lead for HP’s Life Sciences Research Group, Rogacs heads up a recently founded team charged with applying and advancing HP’s expertise in fluid control and analysis to the world of biochemistry. In particular, the HP researchers are developing new ways to make biochemical testing and diagnosis faster, cheaper and more easily conducted in the field.
The work has the potential to benefit a number of major industries, including healthcare, defense, food safety, drug safety, and environmental protection, all of which rely on chemical analyses that are typically undertaken at present on large, expensive machines in highly centralized locations.
“This is going to be the next big revolution in the life sciences,” suggests Rogacs. “The question is not whether we can develop the technology to make it happen, but who’s going to do it - and with its microfluidics and manufacturing capabilities, HP has an exceptionally strong foundation from which to lead the field.”
While HP’s existing expertise will be essential to realizing its vision for a new, decentralized platform for biochemical testing and diagnostics, the company won’t get there without making advances in multiple technical arenas.
“We can jet liquid inks with very high accuracy and repeatability at a resolution of 2 picoliters, but we still have to innovate in a whole variety of other ways,” Rogacs notes. “These include improving how we mix fluids on a chip, how we incubate them at high temperatures, how we detect the presence of specific chemicals, and how we automate these processes so that they work reliably over and over again.”
The HP Life Sciences Research Group thus features specialists with expertise in fields as varied as microfluidics, biophysics, molecular and cellular biology, optics, spectroscopy, enzymology, nano-fabrication, data processing, and machine learning.
Much of their current work is devoted to two major research projects. One is developing new techniques for enabling fluid movement and control at the micron scale. The other aims to significantly advance Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy, or SERS, a technique that identifies molecules through the unique signature of the scattered light detected when laser light is shined on them.
Today’s SERS-based sensors use nanoparticle substrates to amplify the signals that the target molecules emit, making it easier to detect whether specific molecules are present. But they are notoriously difficult to get working both reliably and at scale. Recent HP Labs innovations, however, use highly precise gold-tipped substrates as the basis for SERS-based sensors that can be both manufactured in large volumes and interfaced with portable chemical screening devices.
The HP team has already tested both its fluid control and SERS innovations in a collaborative effort it has been running with the US Food and Drug Administration to improve the detection of protein adulteration in milk and infant formula products.
“While we’re very proud of the success we’ve already had in detecting these adulterants, we’re just as excited to be demonstrating that we can design and build a complete and reliable solution that fits a customer’s needs for running millions and millions of tests,” says Rogacs. “For that, our emphasis on innovation across multiple disciplines has been key.”
In the case of the FDA project, that means developing newly robust, portable, and easy-to-manufacture microfluidic hardware, improved SERS-based sensors, software to analyze the resulting data, a database of protein adulterants, and the data analytics capabilities required to offer clear results to test operators in the field.
“If we can successfully build these different components into a commercially viable testing and screening platform, it will have obvious potential for quality control and counterfeit detection in the food supply, Rogacs adds. “But it’s likely to be useful wherever you need to detect a chemical signature out in the field, whether that’s of a pesticide or chemical weapon, a pharmaceutical you suspect to be tainted, a drug residue in someone’s blood, or even a signature in a biofluid has been shown to indicate cancer.”