From the first microfluidic devices used for analysis of single metabolic by-products to highly complex multicompartmental co-culture organ-on-chip platforms, efforts of many multidisciplinary teams around the world have been invested in overcoming the limitations of conventional research methods in the biomedical field. Close spatial and temporal control over fluids and physical parameters, integration of sensors for direct read-out as well as the possibility to increase throughput of screening through parallelization, multiplexing and automation are some of the advantages of microfluidic over conventional, 2D tissue culture in vitro systems. Moreover, small volumes and relatively small cell numbers used in experimental set-ups involving microfluidics, can potentially decrease research cost. On the other hand, these small volumes and numbers of cells also mean that many of the conventional molecular biology or biochemistry assays cannot be directly applied to experiments that are performed in microfluidic platforms. Development of different types of assays and evidence that such assays are indeed a suitable alternative to conventional ones is a step that needs to be taken in order to have microfluidics-based platforms fully adopted in biomedical research. In this review, rather than providing a comprehensive overview of the literature on microfluidics, we aim to discuss developments in the field of microfluidics that can aid advancement of biomedical research, with emphasis on the field of biomaterials. Three important topics will be discussed, being: screening, in particular high-throughput and combinatorial screening; mimicking of natural microenvironment ranging from 3D hydrogel-based cellular niches to organ-on-chip devices; and production of biomaterials with closely controlled properties. While important technical aspects of various platforms will be discussed, the focus is mainly on their applications, including the state-of-the-art, future perspectives and challenges.
Statement of significance: Microfluidics, being a technology characterized by the engineered manipulation of fluids at the submillimeter scale, offers some interesting tools that can advance biomedical research and development. Screening platforms based on microfluidic technologies that allow high-throughput and combinatorial screening may lead to breakthrough discoveries not only in basic research but also relevant to clinical application. This is further strengthened by the fact that reliability of such screens may improve, since microfluidic systems allow close mimicking of physiological conditions. Finally, microfluidic systems are also very promising as micro factories of a new generation of natural or synthetic biomaterials and constructs, with finely controlled properties.
Keywords: Biomaterials; Biomedical research; High-throughput screening; Microfluidics; Organ-on-chip.
Copyright © 2015 Acta Materialia Inc. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.