A lengthening line of large companies, such as Oki Electric Industries Co. Ltd., is retargeting MEMS chips from automotive to medical and consumer applications. Other companies, including Freescale Semiconductor Inc., have spun off MEMS enterprises for medical and consumer applications. More recently, Robert Bosch GmbH formed a subsidiary, Bosch Sensortec (Kusterdingen, Germany), to concentrate on the emerging BioMEMS and consumer-MEMS chip markets.
Still others, meanwhile, are gaining bio savvy by acquisition. In 2003, Infineon Technologies AG acquired SensoNor; a year earlier, GE bought NovaSensor. And collaborative research between electronics and the life sciences has fostered big commitments from such giants as GE Healthcare and IBM Healthcare and Life Sciences.
Today, most medical tests are in vitro, meaning that a bodily fluid is extracted and sent to a lab for analysis. In vivo implants, meanwhile, can perform a test under the patient's skin between visits to a clinic. But next-generation point-of-care systems will instead strive to do all tests in the office and get the results instantly on a reusable device. Because the amount of testing supplies for a microfluidic device is in the micro- or picoliters, the repeatable tests will not only be less expensive than in vitro testing, but the chemical reactions will be faster acting, yielding diagnostic results while the patient waits.
In general, labs-on-chip consolidate the three traditional functions for medical testing into a single, triple-purpose device. In vitro labs divide the work into sample preparation (putting fluid taken from the patient on a slide), analytic separation (applying the tagged reagent to the sample) and detection (watching to see what color the marker tag turns). Integrating all three functions in a self-cleaning handheld device requires electronic control over the microfluidic pumps, valves and processes and it takes precise metrology to ensure that the lab-on-chip processing is fast, repeatable and accurate.
Call to arms
Meanwhile, the military's call for labs-on-chip that can detect bombs and biological agents is driving a flurry of BioMEMS development activity. All sorts of bioengineering approaches are being explored to detect specific toxic agents. Eventually, industry watchers said, research and development for these devices will trickle down to improve commercial environmental-monitoring sensors. Such devices can now cost upward of $10,000; but with BioMEMS sensors being designed to protect military troops and public places at home, the cost of environmental sensors will inevitably drop as well.