Bioengineering-device design is drawing the electronics, scientific and medical fields into collaborative research and development projects reminiscent of the Star Trek "tricorder." Spock's tricorder could be pointed at anything to analyze its composition, and Dr. McCoy's version a handheld medical scanner could instantly monitor vital signs and diagnose disease. These are precisely the applications bioengineers are aiming at today: smart sensors for security, point-of-care medical diagnosis and environmental monitoring.
The discipline of bioengineering integrates the biological, physical and engineering sciences to create technology that advances the understanding of living nucleic acids, proteins, cells and tissues. Its emergence has resulted in a dizzying array of innovative new biologics, therapeutics, materials and processes.
The frontier technology of BioMEMS microfluidic chips made from biological microelectromechanical systems will enable a new era of "labs on a chip" equipped with micro- or even picoliter-size chemical-reaction chambers, rather than the milliliter-and-up sizes used by typical chemical reactors today. That will bring down the cost of lab-on-chip consumables you need less reagent per reaction as well as the time it takes to make each test. The utility of microfluidics lies in simultaneously testing against an entire microarray of variations and reading out the results in the field, using handheld sensors that can evaluate composition just by pointing and medical scanners that can evaluate health and diagnosis disease while you wait essentially, the Star Trek tricorder.
The Microfluidics Roadmap for the Life Sciences (www.microfluidics-roadmap.com), produced by a European consortium, predicts that by 2008, half the microfluidics market will lie in bioengineering applications. That's about $1.5 billion of a $3 billion market, assuming a 20 to 25 percent annual growth rate.
Last year, by contrast, inkjet printers accounted for 85 percent of the $1.3 billion microfluidics market.
More than 20 pioneering companies already use or are developing microfluidic chips for their own, mostly medical, bioengineering applications. Amgen, Biogen, Genentech, Johnson & Johnson, Roche Diagnostics and Tyco International are among them.