New medical technology sorts and identifies proteins

UAlberta Engineering researchers Faheem Khan and Canada Excellence Research Chair Thomas Thundat have worked with collaborators in South Korea to develop a new inexpensive biomedical device capable of identifying proteins. Inset: the microfluidic chip that analyzes samples.

(Edmonton) A team of engineering researchers at the University of Alberta working have developed an innovative new way to detect proteins, applying “high school physics” to design a device that could bring a possible alternative of state-of-the-art technology of mass spectrometry.

At present, health care professionals use expensive mass spectrometry instruments to identify molecules. The technology they use is applied across a broad spectrum, from identifying air or water contaminant to study geology.

Focusing on medical applications, the U of A research team used electrical fields to manipulate proteins. Using a process called electrophoresis, they made different proteins “line up” by type, according to their sizes, then used a microfabricated sensor, called a microfluidic cantilever, to weigh them.

“Proteins are charged in a liquid medium and different proteins have different sizes that make them separate themselves when under an applied electric field,” said Faheem Khan, a member of the research team. “We combined different principles of basic physics to achieve a complex task of protein testing.”

Proteins are extremely small—you need a scanning electron microscope to capture images of them. But the cantilever device identifies the separated proteins by their effect on its vibrations. It was developed by a team led by University of Alberta Canada Excellence Research Chair in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering Thomas Thundat, in collaboration with researchers at Sogang University, South Korea.

“Instead of using a SEM or mass spectrometer, which is very expensive and difficult to maintain, we’ve developed a cheaper device to analyze proteins,” said Khan. “The cost of electrophoresis-based protein detection using a microfluidic cantilever is much lower than a standard mass spectrometer.”

The team’s findings have been published in Nature: Scientific Reports, a leading scholarly journal.

The technology of microfluidic cantilever can be used in:

  •  Identification of proteins in diagnostic industry
  • Drug discovery in pharmaceuticals
  • Fundamental research in various area of biology

Over past few years, the team has demonstrated multiple applications of the microfluidic cantilevers. Now the technology is being commercialized through a startup called Fourien Inc.