BALTIMORE, Md.—Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have joined forces with Leuven, Belgium-based Imec to advance “lab on a chip” technology in the hopes of extending the potential applications of silicon nanotechnology into multiple areas of medicine.
Ultimately, the university and the nanoelectronics developer hope to create diagnostic tests so sophisticated, they can be performed outside of traditional laboratory conditions. The groundbreaking collaboration was announced in late October.
According to Dr. Landon King, executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the partnership arose from an ongoing relationship between the university’s Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) and Imec. Launched in 2006, the INBT supports research using nanoscience to advance the understanding of cellular and molecular dynamics at the molecular level, as well as to develop new diagnostics and therapeutics. Training for researchers is provided by experts from the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s School of Medicine, the Whiting School of Engineering’s Applied Physics Lab and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
“The connection between the INBT and Imec helped to open the door for a conversation about extending this research into biomedical research products and healthcare,” says King, who is also the David Marine Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins. “They will continue to be strong partners going forward to pursue the potential applications of the combination of their expertise in nanotechnology and our expertise in healthcare.”
The two parties’ respective expertise is highly complementary. Johns Hopkins has significant clinical and research expertise as well as strategic ties to leaders in the healthcare and technology sectors, while Imec, formerly known as the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre but established as an independent, nonprofit research organization in 1984, is considered a leader in the fields of silicon nanotechnology, semiconductors and bioelectronics.
“Clearly, Imec’s experience and background is in building platforms for the technological side of things that could enable applications into biomedical research and healthcare,” says King. “From our side, we have expertise along a full spectrum of research. Combining the understanding of technology on their side and the understanding of biology, healthcare and disease on our side will create the potential to create new therapeutics, but our initial focus at this stage will be diagnostics.”
Using Imec’s nanotechnology, the partners hope to develop the next generation of what researchers are calling the “lab on a chip.” The idea is that a disposable chip could be loaded with a sample of blood, saliva or urine, and then quickly analyzed using a smartphone, tablet or computer—making diagnostic testing faster and easier for applications such as disease monitoring and management, disease surveillance, rural healthcare and clinical trials. It’s a concept that King’s colleague at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Drew Pardoll, the Martin Abeloff Professor of Oncology, calls “the healthcare equivalent of transforming a rotary telephone into the iPhone.”
“We believe there will be opportunities in healthcare, both domestically and internationally, to enable point-of-care testing for a number of different conditions or circumstances,” adds King. “It may be the case in the not-too-distant future that you don’t have to go to a major hospital or clinical laboratory somewhere to pursue diagnostic testing. We’re talking about developing technologies that could be so much of an improvement over existing technologies that testing could be performed more locally in places like a doctor’s office or even an individual patient’s home.”
With the advent of personalized medicine and more American patients getting increased access to healthcare via Obamacare, the timing for the development of such tests is perfect, says King.
“There is certainly a lot of conversation in the healthcare marketplace about what we need to do in terms of improving healthcare and where these activities take place. As these discussions evolve, it will definitely inform new approaches to diagnosis and disease management,” he says.
King says the partners are developing a timeline around execution of their intended projects and hope to be pursuing their first targets by mid-2014.
“We anticipate that work will take place in both places, and people in each organization will travel back and forth,” King says. “We’re constructing this as a highly collaborative agreement and feel it will be valuable to access expertise in both of our home camps. We very much look forward to leveraging our respective strengths across the university in biomedical and nanotechnology research to improve patient diagnosis and care throughout the world.”
Imec did not respond to interview requests by press time. In a press release announcing the collaboration, CEO Luc Van den hove stated, “This relationship with Johns Hopkins is an important step toward creating a powerful cross-disciplinary ecosystem with consumer electronics and mobile companies, medical device manufacturers, research centers and the broader biopharma and semiconductor industries, to create the combined expertise required to address huge healthcare challenges that lie ahead. Only through close collaboration will we be able to develop technology solutions for more accurate, reliable and low-cost diagnostics that pave the way to better, predictive and preventive home-based personal healthcare.”