| Open Sesame
by David Pescovitz
month, Boris Rubinsky, professor of bioengineering and mechanical
engineering, and his former graduate student Yong Huang are receiving
what the Chicago Tribune calls an "Oscar of invention" and others
refer to as a "Nobel Prize of applied research." The 2002 R&D 100
Award from R&D Magazine is for the pair's "bionic chip," a device
that may help revolutionize medicine by merging electronic circuitry
with living tissue.
Boris Rubinsky (seen here) and Yong Huang will receive their
2002 R&D 100 Award at an October ceremony in Chicago.
Photo courtesy Boris Rubinsky
First unveiled at UC Berkeley two years ago, the microelectromechanical
chip acts as an electronic doorknob that opens up the pores in fragile,
living cells at the touch of a button so genes or drugs, for example,
can be introduced. The bionic chip's operation is based on electroporation,
a technique for forming pores in a cell's membrane by applying a
specific voltage. While electroporation is a standard method of
introducing macromolecules into cells, it's traditionally done by
zapping batches of cells with very little control. Rubinsky and
Huang's chip treats each biological cell like a diode, or switch,
that allows current to flow through it only at a certain voltage
that varies from cell to cell.
The chip is manufactured using processes similar to the way integrated
circuits are manufactured. Inside the three-layered device, a cell
is captured between two electrodes. The circuit is only completed
when the electrical potential is high enough to induce electroporation,
enabling a measurable current to flow between the electrodes through
the newly opened pores. Once the proper voltage is known, Rubinsky
says, "it's like having a remote control to the door."
Patented by UC Berkeley, the technology was licensed for commercialization to Bioelectronic Micro Systems, a start-up founded by Rubinsky and Huang and funded by the Florida Hospital in Orlando. Huang serves as the president of the company while Rubinsky sits on the board of directors. Recently, the company created a new version of the chip that employs microfluidics "plumbing" to automatically induce electroporation in millions of cells en masse.
new flow-through bionic chip enables cell membranes to be
opened en masse.
Photo courtesy Boris Rubinsky
"There is a free flow of information between my laboratory at Berkeley and the company," Rubinsky says. "The chip is an ideal lab tool for us to study fundamental biophysics and develop applications."
The development of new electroporation approaches to gene therapy is one of Rubinsky's primary research thrusts. He and his graduate students recently used the bionic chip to introduce a test gene for flourescence into a cell and study how the cell expresses that gene.
"It's the most promising engineering alternative to viral gene therapy" where desired genes are introduced into the body by piggybacking them on viruses, Rubinsky says.
Another project involves engineering stem cells using electroporation to produce heart tissue that can be grown on scaffolds as biocompatible "band-aids" for damaged heart muscle. Meanwhile, other laboratories around the world are conducting research into other applications for the electroporation technology. However, Rubinsky says, UC Berkeley remains the bionic chip's alpha test site.
"Our feeling is that the future of biotechnology rests with the electroporation process," he says.
Boris Rubinsky's Home Page
Microfabricated Chip for the Study of Cell Electroporation" (PDF)
release on Rubinsky's Cryosurgery research
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