Characterizing cells as completely as possible is crucial in the development of a biopharmaceutical. At the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, Håkan Jönsson, PhD, associate professor at the division of nanobiotechnology, captures cells with droplet microfluidics. Then, the cells and the products that they make can be analyzed.

“We make pico- to nanoliter droplets of water in fluorinated oil,” Jönsson says. “The fluorinated oils are basically liquid Teflon—making the droplets the next-generation test tubes.” With this technology, Jönsson can form thousands to tens of thousands of droplets per second, control the exact size, and capture a single cell in a droplet. “Then we control not only the single cell but also its nutrients and whatever it produces and secretes,” Jönsson says.

The droplets can also be manipulated. “We can split the droplets in two or we can merge them together,” Jönsson says. “We can add reagents into the droplets.” In this way, a pharmaceutical company could automatically test a drug library against well-characterized cells. The droplets are also stabile enough for shipping, but turning this technology into a commercial product requires some modifications.

“We’re trying to simplify the process,” Jönsson says. His team hopes to improve the interface between droplet microfluidics and standard formats, such as a microwell plate, and robotics, such as a pipetting robot. “This interfacing question is important because otherwise we have stuff in labs that are held together with scotch tape and rubber bands,” Jönsson says. The interfacing challenge, however, can never be completely solved. “To some extent, it’s never ending because people think of new formats,” Jönsson says. “Then you have to be able to interface with those new formats.”

Bridging the gap between academics and industry challenges all researchers. “There’s sort of a disconnect between commercial applications and academic research,” Jönsson explains. “To a large extent, we try to push the engineering aspects, but a lot of that becomes too advanced, too technically challenging, for commercial use.” So, Jönsson will keep looking for ways to simplify his technology to create a system that is easy enough for commercial use and fits existing workflows.