Microtools for Studying Nature's Microprocessors
Multiple electronic components, miniaturized and integrated into a silicon microprocessor make up the heart of any computer, cell phone, or PDA (personal digital assistants like a palm pilot); they have been the force behind the "digital revolution."
But now chemical and biological processes can be miniaturized and integrated into devices and their potential in biology is almost indescribable - as the most successful "biochemical microprocessor" attests: it was produced billions of years ago by nature, in the form of the first living cell.
Canada Research Chair David Juncker heads a laboratory at McGill where researchers bioengineer micro- and nanosystems for miniaturizing biochemical processes. These systems are still much simpler than a living cell, but they have similar dimensions of a few thousands of a millimetre or even less, and therefore have to be fabricated with processes similar to the ones used for making silicon microprocessors.
Juncker is particularly interested in microfluidic systems, which can, for example, be used to analyze the biochemical profile of a cell. Such an analysis could help us understand how cancer arises, how it progresses, and ultimately lead to better treatments by producing disease profiles.
Juncker is also looking into the use of micro- and nanosystems to probe the function and response of single cells. The tools he develops could be used to stimulate a neural or a cardiac cell, helping us to understand how the cell functions and why it responds the way it does to being disturbed.
Juncker's exploration of biochemical processes and cells at a microscopic level is opening exciting new avenues and will no doubt shed valuable light on functions that are critical in disease.