SAN FRANCISCO, April 11 - With sights set on its proteomics future, Agilent Laboratories has sought help from its Hewlett-Packard pedigree.
To help it develop a microfluidics chip, Agilent said it has turned to a flexible polymer found in every HP ink-jet printer, along with laser ablation, a technique that HP helped refine.
Agilent hopes the chip--still more 'R' than 'D' according to Kevin Killeen, project manager in the materials technology department of Agilent Labs, the central research facility of Agilent Technologies--will help researchers sample proteins at the microliter level. Killeen estimates that the chip is two or three years away from commercial production.
"The project is a complement to Caliper chips," Killeen said, referring to Caliper Technologies' glass DNA and RNA microfluidics-chip systems that Agilent had helped develop and currently markets.
Agilent's technology uses lasers to burn tiny channels into a sheet of the flexible polymer, called Kapton. A second sheet is then heated and pressure bonded over the first one, creating closed channels. This lets the laser fashion miniature tips from the polymer, which allows the protein sample first to be introduced into the chip and then to be sprayed out for mass-spec analysis.
Kapton, made by DuPont, is nonreactive to proteins, said Killeen. What's more, because the second layer of Kapton is bonded directly to the first layer, joints are not used in the chip. This, said Killeen, ensures that the chips do not have areas in which samples could pool and possibly contaminate results.
Having created prototype chips able to analyze 24 samples (Agilent hopes to increase this capacity to 384), the challenge remains how best to introduce the samples into a capillary tube that traditionally feeds into a mass spectrometer.
"We have such minimal sample volume we don't want to fill a whole capillary," Killeen told GenomeWeb following a technology forum Agilent sponsored here last month. "That would defeat the [purpose of] microfluidics."
But eliminating the capillary tube to spray sample directly from the chip into the mass spectrometer creates its own problems: The robotic instrumentation available to manipulate titer plates and chips is geared for larger sample sizes.
"We need something to manipulate the chip towards the mass-spec nozzle, a high precision motion system," Killeen said.