Microfluidics has so far been used in mostly large-scale, automated pharma and biotech projects, such as nucleic acid and protein separation. Miniaturizing fluid flow to the micrometer-to-millimeter scale offers plenty of advantages for studying cells and small organisms. Biologic-scale microfluidic devices can mimic many in vivo situations, such as laminar blood flow through a capillary or the three-dimensional structures that culture plates can't capture. Such systems can also help researchers to use scarce primary cells and expensive reagents more efficiently.

Already, at least two companies, Cellix and Agilent, offer systems for specific cellular applications, and others are working on prototypes. Their price tags (about $100,000 or more), though, put them out of the reach of most academic labs. So, researchers are starting to collaborate with companies or academic engineers, or are...

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