Frontiers in Advancing Biomedicine | AIChE

Frontiers in Advancing Biomedicine

Last updated January 6, 2017

Working in tandem with medical and biomedical researchers, chemical engineers continue to play a central role in the design and development of complex, innovative devices to treat human ailments.

Many of the challenges currently being addressed in this important field involve the creation of smaller and smaller devices used to enhance medical diagnosis and treatment.

Lab on a chip

Lab on a chip assemblies are extremely small microfluidic devices. A single chip is used to perform multiple laboratory functions. Chips range in size from that of a credit card to a button or fingernail, but they are all able to carry out complex biomedical analyses. New lab-on-a-chip assemblies are being developed for an array of research, diagnostic, and genomic study applications.

Analysis on a dime

Groundbreaking collaboration between the chemical engineering and biomedical communities has resulted in the advancement of microfluidic devices. These extremely small—some are the size of a dime—analytical devices are often called lab-on-a-chip assemblies.

They are able to carry out various chemical, biomedical, and thermal reactions, measurements, and analyses with greater specificity, speed, and reliability than larger, more conventional devices.

From bio research to crime-scene investigation

Novel lab-on-a-chip assemblies are currently being developed for an array of applications in biomedical research, clinical diagnoses, and genomic studies. These analytical devices are being created to quickly and accurately identify microbes and pathogens in water, soil, and food. They are also being adapted as field-ready devices for forensic use in criminal investigations to allow for faster DNA testing. “Point of care” ion analysis of body fluids can help both criminal and medical diagnosis.

Nanoscale structures

Two nanoscaled structures that have gained a lot of attention in recent years are now being developed as targeted drug-delivery vehicles. Polymeric dendrimers can easily encapsulate small drug molecules and are biodegradable. Fullerenes, also called buckyballs, are extremely small and highly resistant to biochemical attack within the body.

Tiny, tough, targeted

In recent years two nanoscaled structures have generated a lot of excitement among chemical engineers and biomedical researchers. Now being developed as targeted drug-delivery vehicles, they are:

  • Polymeric dendrimers - highly branched synthetic macromolecules- and
  • Fullerenes, or buckyballs - hollow, soccer-ball-shaped molecules composed of 60 carbon atoms.

Polymeric dendrimers

These synthetic macromolecules are intriguing to biomedical researchers for use in drug delivery because:

  • They can easily encapsulate small drug molecules;
  • They are biodegradable; and
  • Their size and structure can be easily controlled during manufacture.


Since the discovery of fullerenes-novel, nanoscaled structures-chemical-engineering principles have been invaluable in moving them from the test tube to full-scale production. Fullerenes are ideally suited for use as drug-delivery vehicles because of their small size and resistance to biochemical attack within the body.

Researchers are also exploring the use of fullerenes as carriers of radioactive atoms within the body. The objective is to assist in destruction of tumors in situ while reducing unrelated cell damage and other side effects caused by traditional methods of chemotherapy.