Gale is a guru of microfluidics, which is the study of flow in small (millimeter or smaller) channels. He employs 15-20 graduate and undergraduate students in the Center of Excellence for Biomedical Microfluidics. Gale’s research spans five categories: DNA extraction systems, highly parallel microfluidics, small animal processing systems, miniature medical devices, and nanoparticle separations and analysis. Applications for these projects range from rapid diagnosis of infection, bacteria or cancer to biowarfare protection.
Using a mechanism the size and shape of a CD, Gale’s digital PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is not only able to determine if a blood sample has cancer cells, it can tell you the stage of the cancer. And he does it in a matter of minutes.
The CD sized pathology digital PCR device is a total DNA analysis system or a ‘lab-on-a-chip.’ With a typical syringe, Gale or one of his students places a sample into a DNA extraction system, which collects the DNA and delivers it to the PCR disk before spinning it like any other CD. The spinning causes cells to collect in small wells where they can be quickly counted based on cell type.
Prof. Gale has developed several tools designed to take simple tests and make them perform dozens of tests simultaneously. These systems can make a simple sensor into one that can detect dozens of different particles all at the same time. This same technology is now being used to test tumors for the best drugs to treat that specific individual’s tumor. Finding the right drug cocktail to treat a patient’s cancer leads to a better recovery rate.
He and his students are also working on miniature medical devices and medical fluid applications. In a new device for nerve regeneration, patients with a severed nerve may be helped by the insertion of a microfluidic device that helps nerves grow back through the gap. For example, cut nerves result in paralysis of the extremities. While nerves do grow back, they do so very slowly and not usually where they belong. Gale’s exciting nerve regeneration device is an engineered system of valves in a tube loaded with drugs to guide the nerve in the correct direction and speed their growth.
Gale also studies exosomes, which are mini DNA/RNA cell communicators present in perhaps all biological fluids. They are between 30-100 nm, which is much smaller than red blood cells. Exosomes play key roles in communication between the cells in the body and may be involved in the processes of cancer spreading and heart disease. “We are excited about the NIH funding to create a tool to separate exosomes from blood. It will make it so that medical researchers can more easily study their properties,” notes Gale.
Prof. Gale’s group has also recently developed devices that can sort zebrafish embryos based on their DNA in a rapid fashion. The DNA is collected from 36 hour old embryos and allows medical researchers to decide which embryos are appropriate for testing with new drugs. These tools have the potential to speed the development of new drugs and help medical researchers focus on those experiments that will be most productive.
“We are working to bring health care out of the hospital and to the places where we normally live and work.”