Cells are conventionally grown on a 2D surface, causing them to become stretched and flat. While a flat sample is useful for imaging and biological study, other applications like those involving anti-cancer drug tests require the use of 3D cell samples.
IBN's invention, developed and conceptualized by Group Leader Dr Hanry Yu, Lab Officer Hai Ting Ho, and Senior Lab Officer Jing Zhang, involves the production of microcapsules using a semi-automated device.
These microcapsules, which are made of modified collagen and terpolymer, are able to trap cells in a 3D environment and allow them to be cultivated under different conditions.
Being small (200 to 500 microns) and spherical, the microcapsules have the largest surface-to-volume ratio of all regular shapes. This enables nutrients and drugs or other external molecules to enter the microcapsule, and for metabolic products to leave it.
Current technologies only allow for the production of large quantities of microcapsules for transplantation or bioreactor (container used for biological reactions) applications. Conventional devices also tend to produce microcapsules that vary greatly in their size and shape.
IBN's device, however, can produce a small quantity of uniform microcapsules, thus avoiding unnecessary material wastage. In addition, the encapsulated cells produced by IBN's device are less likely to be damaged since no high voltage, vibration or organic solvents are involved, unlike those produced by current devices, which use high electric field and mechanical forces.
This makes the device suitable for use in biological research and biomedical applications. For example, in the area of drug testing and screening, drugs can be loaded into microcapsules. The behaviour of the cells can be observed and analysed, before the drugs are used in further pre-clinical and clinical trials.
A US patent has been filed on the technology.