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Lab on a Chip: Personalized Diagnosis and Therapeutics

The Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine is the premier leader in cancer diagnosis. At the College of Engineering (CoE), Dr. Onur Tigli, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is developing cancer diagnosis technology at the micron scale, which is currently funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This research explores the development of a lab-on-a-chip platform that integrates novel electronic, acoustic and magnetic components for comprehensive biophysical studies through cell interrogation.

Tigli’s research aims to create a personalized medicine path for cancer patients, in which patients can be diagnosed at the cellular level. Such diagnosis would be accomplished by using novel devices that combine principles of electronics, acoustics and magnetics at the micrometer scale. (For reference, an average human hair strand has a diameter of 100 micrometers.)

This type of acoustic wave is a surface acoustic wave (SAW), which only travels on the surfaces of piezoelectric materials. Piezoelectric materials respond to mechanical stress with the generation of electrical charge and generate mechanical strain when exposed to an electric field. Since SAW devices are able to detect anything placed in their paths, they can accurately detect the varying biophysical properties of cells with cancerous growths.

Conventional methods for cancer diagnosis use multiple samples and biopsies. In contrast, Tigli’s research focuses on only one cell at a time, allowing researchers to remove the errors of hiding outliers (from lack of homogeneity among cells) when averaging cells in large samples.

The research has yielded a small device incorporating microfluidics with electronics. The device, essentially a small chip, contains measurement tools and microfluidics with inlets and outlets for delivery of cells to and from sensors. However, this device, like most sensors, point-of-care equipment or implantable medical devices, is not self-sustaining. To address this, Tigli and his team are also searching for ways to eliminate batteries from such devices. One such solution that Tigli and his team are researching—under their energy harvester project—is piezoelectricity.

Piezoelectricity is the ability of certain materials to generate an electric charge in response to applied mechanical stress. Tigli and his colleagues capture the vibrations that occur in the environment and use those as mechanical stressors for their piezoelectric materials. To accomplish this, they build tiny mechanical structures. When these unique microstructures are exposed to external stimuli, they create stress levels higher than what would result from simply compressing something such as a hard block. This allows them to maximize the stress generated for every unit of force that is applied.

Employing piezoelectricity may result in longer-lasting batteries or self-sustaining devices without batteries. This has applications beyond cancer diagnosis devices, namely pacemakers (more than doubling the time between replacements), resulting in improved quality of life for the patient. Moreover, these novel energy harvester microchips are designed to be fully compatible with commercial technologies and therefore can also be integrated with/in most consumer electronics products, such as smartphones and tablet computers.

The project is titled, “Acoustics Lab on a Chip for Comprehensive Biophysical Studies of Tumor Cells: Towards Personalized Cancer Diagnosis and Therapeutics.”

For more information, please visit Dr. Tigli’s Bio CMOS/MEMS/NANO Research Team website at

NOTE: The above image represents the energy harvester microchip project.