Ricardo Aroca Award recognizes Aaron Wheeler's achievements in Microfluidics

January 24, 2024 by Alyx Dellamonica

Developing procedures that can isolate and study the most dangerous cells among the millions in a large tumor. Testing for measles, rubella and other pathogens in the field, using a laboratory the size of a credit card to run samples. Growing organ tissues on devices outside the body to test drugs. The medical applications of analytical chemistry are vast... and they have a great capacity to improve public health. 

These applications represent a few possible fruits of research ongoing in Professor Aaron Wheeler’s group at the UofT department of chemistry. Small wonder, then, that this extensive body of work will be honored this June in Winnipeg at the Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition (CSC 2024). 

Wheeler has been chosen to receive the Ricardo Aroca Award, which is presented at CSC to a scientist residing in Canada who has made a distinguished contribution to the field of analytical chemistry while working within the country. 

The Wheeler group specializes in analytical chemistry and microfluidics, the study and applications of fluid flow in dimensions smaller than the diameter of a human hair. The group is known for contributions to digital microfluidics in medical contexts, developing techniques in which small droplets of sample material are manipulated on an array of electrodes, with no microchannels or moving parts. 

“Virtually every living organism sheds cells,” Wheeler explains. “A cancerous tumor, for example, sends innumerable cells out into its host’s body. Of those, most cells will not be metastatic, so identifying and studying the few that can survive the immune system and spread the cancer is vital for understanding how to prevent and treat this disease.” 

Another example of finding rare cells among larger samples involves searching out cells shed by a fetus within a cervical swab taken from its mother. Success means reducing the need for more invasive tests, with their potential negative outcomes, stress, and discomfort.  

Wheeler group pocket laboratories can also analyze pinprick-sized samples of blood, providing point-of-care diagnostics in resource-limited settings such as refugee camps. In some cases, the devices involved can be printed using an inkjet printer and assembled onsite, avoiding the difficulty and expense of building tests within an electronic clean room and then shipping them to clinics. 

In addition to finding innovative ways to make these portable laboratories accessible to a wider range of users, Wheeler’s team has been working on increasing medical devices’ efficacy, tackling problems like biofouling so that the small samples involved will have a lower chance of contamination. 

Wheeler serves as Editor-in-Chief of the microfluidics journal, Lab on a Chip, and will co-host a conference on Miniaturized Systems for Chemistry and Life Sciences, MicroTas, in Montreal in October 2024. He will deliver a keynote address at the Winnipeg CSC 2024 when he accepts the award in June.