I’m currently reading Daniel Pink’s Free Agent Nation, which discusses how the availability of technology has enabled people to do certain types of work (e.g. software development, graphic design) from their homes as part of a modern cottage industry. It got me thinking about how microfluidics may contribute to technology decentralization, shifting technology resources from the hands of a few into the hands of many.
Consumer medicine (e.g., home pregnancy tests) is a prime example of how microfluidics may decentralize medical technology. Medical tests, once the domain of laboratories, could be brought into doctor’s offices and homes as point-of-care devices, potentially allowing more self-treatment and telemedicine. Microfluidics could enable these tests to be low-cost enough for wide dissemination.
It’s already starting to happen — many of the microfluidics efforts in global health (e.g.,Diagnostics for All, Daktari) are based around this idea. But cheap, fast, easy-to-use diagnostics aren’t just attractive to the developing world — there’s no reason why developed countries wouldn’t want these technologies, too. The Claros Diagnostics business model, with efforts in both the G7 as well as developing countries, is a terrific example of this.
Another interesting side of technology decentralization is how microfluidics may overlap with the DIY Bio movement, which encourages “making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety.” Many microfluidic devices are tools for biology research. Could the same low-cost advantages of microfluidics enable DIY Bio to become a cottage industry where people make a living as independent biologists? Or will DIY Bio remain more of a hobby?
Even if microfluidics lowers the equipment costs of doing biology at home, the costs of consumables still form a barrier that doesn’t exist in fields like software development. Another potential challenge to DIY Bio is the regulatory issues surrounding doing biology in the basement — although perhaps there are ways to tackle this.
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The DIYbio organization, founded by Jason Bobe from the Personal Genome Project out of George Church‘s lab at Harvard and Mackenzie Cowell, Director of The Boston Open Source Science Lab (BOSSlab), has been helping organize the movement.