The University of Southampton
Engineering and the Environment

Revolutionising medicine with microstructured technology

Published: 8 December 2017

A breakthrough in sensor technology by University of Southampton engineers could revolutionise the way doctors monitor people with serious and chronic conditions.

Analysing fluid from a patient at a molecular level through tiny droplets using a portable device will give them vital information through a continual datastream of accurate measurements.

Associate Professor Dr Xize Niu heads a research group examining how microfluidics could transform medicine. “Doctors want to know if their treatments are effective.  Although it’s possible to monitor biochemical changes in a person at present, you need complex and expensive laboratory equipment. Our ‘fluicorder’ can do the job quickly and easily and it can even be worn on the body,” he says.

There are already applications for the technique in environmental science to measure water quality through microfluidics, and many more possibilities exist. Xize has set up a spin-out company to develop the technology further.


Sophisticated science at the microscale

The palm-sized fluicorder is simple but ingenious. A micro-pump collects a sample of blood or other fluid from a small plastic medical probe attached to a patient. The sample is then combined with an oil to create a stream of droplets measuring just 100 microns which are sent for optical analysis within the device. Data can then be transmitted by Bluetooth to a smart phone, computer or directly to the clinician. This continuous process captures real-time information so doctors can see for themselves how their patient is biochemically responding to treatment.

“Athletes already use ‘wearable technology’ to measure their health and fitness and many of us count the number of steps we take a day through a wristband or smartphone app. Developing these ideas further, our ‘chemical ECG’ will provide healthcare professionals with valuable information about their patients,” explains Xize.


Interdisciplinary research develops the concept

A member of the University of Southampton’s Institute for Life Sciences (IfLS), Xize works with fellow engineers and colleagues from Electronics and Computer Science, Medicine and Health Sciences, on the project. Tests are already underway on monitoring glucose and lactic acid levels in humans. Other potential applications include understanding the effects of chemotherapy drugs and monitoring trauma patients.

Xize’s research has already attracted grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). He has five members in his research group and another eight work for the spin-out company SouthWestSensors Ltd. The University of Southampton’s innovations hub Futureworlds is also supporting the project.

At present the team is keen to talk to electrical or mechanical engineers who can help them with future developments.


Using microfluidics to test water quality in seas, rivers and lakes

Another key application of the technology involves analysing water from seas, rivers and lakes. While nitrate and phosphate are essential for a healthy ecosystem, too much can result in serious ecological damage. A fluicorder is small and portable and can easily be taken on location and left there to remotely measure the chemical composition of the water in real time and transmit the information.

Xize is working with several partners including scientists at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Wallingford, and Dr Adrian Nightingale a NERC Industrial Innovation fellow within Engineering at the University of Southampton. “Often, by the time people notice algal blooms and realise there are problems with a waterway, caused by pollution or run-off from arable land, it is too late to put matters right. Our technology can monitor the health of the water and warn environmentalists in good time,” he says.

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