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Are we ready for living computers?

04 May 2015  | R. Colin Johnson

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Traditional drug discovery uses passive arrays of cells, each of which is exposed to a slightly different drug, then a scanner (usually with a laser, but sometimes electrically) checks each cell to measure its response, thus narrowing down which drugs show the most promise for further testing. Unfortunately, measuring the optical or electrical response of a cell to a drug is not sufficient to capture all the changes going on inside the cell, according to Wang, plus his method is 1,000 times faster.

To solve the problem, Wang has produced arrays of "sensing pixels" each of which measure a different parameter, with the goal of uncovering the complete metabolic response of the cell to a drug, with the CMOS chip performing "sensor fusion" on the results.

"Our innovation is to use CMOS technology with 144 sensor pixels—in a 12-by-12 array—each with many sensing modalities, and which can take their measurements all at the same time on the same cells, so as to read out the complete metabolic changes in the cells," Wang told us.

CMOS multi-modality cellular sensor array chip

A CMOS multi-modality cellular sensor array chip being developed at Georgia Tech is hosted on a standard printed circuit board (PCB) and is packaged using low-cost Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) material to ensure biocompatibility and electrical insulation. A standard 35mm cell culture dish with drilled-out bottom is mounted on the PCB to host the cells and medium, and expose cells to the CMOS sensing surface. The technology offers a low-cost solution and can be extended to standard multi-well plates for high-throughput massively parallel drug screening. (Source: Georgia Tech; Photo: Rob Felt)

For the future, Wang has two directions he plans to go with this project—adding more sensing pixels (up to 1,000), plus adding actuators to stimulate the cells as well as sense them. He is also shrinking the arrays from 100µ to 80µ, each of which now house about 20 to 30 cells, eventually down to a size small enough to hold a single cell over 1,000 sensor/actuator pixels per array.

The CMOS chip measures about 2mm x 2mm now and has a single pixel array well. Next Wang is going to six wells and then 96 wells all of which can be read out simultaneously by circuitry on the CMOS chip. The chip also does the signal processing of each scan with the hope of eventually processing "big data" with his CMOS chips attached to a conventional data centre. He estimates it will take five to 10 years to commercialise the technique, even though his contract is for three years and he is just finishing its first year.


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