You’re sick. You may have an infection, or cancer or cardiovascular disease. Your doctor runs a quick diagnostic test in their office using a biochip, which can identify the source of the infection or abnormality in your body.
It sounds like science fiction, but thanks to Senior Lecturer Majid Warkiani, the technology is just around the corner. In fact, it’s already being used to remove pathogens from your beer.
That’s right, Majid’s innovative work in cell separation is already being used in different industries. One example is the newly developed cancer diagnostic biochip, which can separate and identify cancerous cells from normal blood cells, which is currently in use many research centres around the world. In the future, it could lead to more affordable early diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
The same technology is under development to lift the beer quality and taste through an ongoing collaboration with an Adelaide brewer (Coopers Brewery). The technology uses in-line separation to prevent the growth of spoilage and pathogenic micro-organisms in the brewer’s yeast tanks.
“The big problems – like cancer, like cardiovascular disease – these are not the type of problems that one group with one set of skills can solve. We will only tackle the problems if scientists, engineers and biologists talk together and chip in from different perspectives,” explains Majid.
“I'm somewhere in the middle of engineering and medicine, which I really like. I understand the language of clinicians as well as the language of engineers. You can find lots of engineers, and lots of clinicians, but you rarely find people with both skills. And that's where all the needs of the world are aligning.”
Learning these two languages, though, took some time. Though originally from Iran, it was during Majid’s work as a doctoral student in Singapore, using nanotechnology to improve water quality, that he realised the wider potential of his research. “We were creating tools to identify bacteria in water and I started to get exposed to the world of micro-filtration. And I realised how much application you can find for these things.”
After completing his PhD, Majid moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Boston) in the US where he began to work closely with biologists and clinicians applying his micro-filtration techniques to rare cell sorting. His work with clinicians on cancer research reinforced his longing to work in the medical realm. In July 2017, after a brief stint at the University of New South Wales, Majid moved his research and team to UTS to be part of the new School of Biomedical Engineering.
“UTS gave me the freedom to build the laboratory that I want with all the equipment that I need, which was great,” enthuses Majid. “So now we have a world-class laboratory with all the necessary tools, and, given we are in close proximity to the biologists and scientists in the Faculty of Science, we can jump across there and collaborate.”
While some might consider this kind of collaborative and connected research to be a whole new way of working, Majid’s convinced it’s the key to making real progress on disease prevention.
In addition to teaming up with Coopers Brewery, Majid’s also applied the cell separation technique to algal research with C3 and is collaborating with peers in Adelaide to use the system in pre-natal screening for genetic disorders. At the same time, it’s also being used to separate stem cells to better understand their therapeutic potential through collaboration with the Regeneus Company in Sydney. And, Majid’s developing microscale tumour models (so-called tumour-on-a-chip) that will eliminate the need to test drugs and treatments on animal models.
Majid says, “There are so many opportunities in this context because all diseases come back to the cells – either a bacterial infection, a virus infection, or cell-related abnormalities. Then it just requires a mechanism to separate them.”
While he makes it sound easy, Majid concedes there’s a long path still to take before his research moves out of the laboratory into the real world. Yet he remains driven by his belief that his work will make a difference. “We are working on real-world problems and the technology we are developing is useful and patient-orientated and can change the life of people that are diagnosed with cancer or other diseases.”