Pupils design microchip to fight lung disease

Pupils at Heriot-Watt University have developed a "micro-pumping" chip which will help the fight against lung cancer. Picture: Contributed
Pupils at Heriot-Watt University have developed a "micro-pumping" chip which will help the fight against lung cancer. Picture: Contributed
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A GROUP of young city scientists have designed a miniature lab tool which will be used as part of an £11.5 million project to help fight lung disease.

A group of third-year pupils from Liberton High School were challenged to use a microchip to help create sensors small enough to be inserted into the inflamed lungs of patients.

Pupils quickly grasped the possibilities and came up with their own ideas

Bill Harris

Microfluidic chips – often known as a “lab on a chip” – are small pieces of plastic, just a few centimeters in size, which simulate certain laboratory processes by manipulating tiny volumes of fluid in channels the size of a single human hair.

Liquids behave very differently at this scale, which allows scientists to design entirely new types of systems.

The youngsters were introduced to the technology by researchers from Heriot-Watt University.

Dr Helen Bridle, research fellow at the university, told the Evening News today: “In class the kids designed something which could potentially solve the problem the researchers had with getting an optical fibre down into the lungs.

“I was really impressed with the ideas they came up with.

“We took them away to manufacture their designs and then took them back to the school to test them to see if it worked.

“They used food dye to watch the liquids on the chip, which was really visually exciting.”

Dr Bridle added: “Hopefully it will inspire them to go on to have a career in Stem – ­science, technology, ­engineering and mathematics – ­especially the girls, where we know there are shortages.”

The team of students – named The Procaps – won a special award for their chip design and report, which was shown at the Glasgow Science Festival.

Bill Harris, a chemistry teacher at Liberton High School, said: “We have been delighted to work with the Small Plumbing project on engineering solutions to real science problems. The pupils have gained a tremendous insight into the work of engineers and how many disciplines have to work together in science.

“To hear the pupils talking to the engineers about microfluidics was a joy.

“They quickly grasped the possibilities and came up with their own ideas.”

Holly Fleming, a postgraduate chemistry student at Edinburgh University, was presented with the award-­winning chip to use in her research on Sunday.

She said: “It is great that all of the students have engaged so well with the Small Plumbing Project and are so excited about engineering and how it can be applied.

“The fact that I will actually use the chip the students have designed in my research, as part of an £11.5 million funded project (Proteus) is amazing and a real testament to how beneficial schemes like Small Plumbing can be for everyone involved.”

The Small Plumbing project – which was funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering – was set up to introduce school pupils to the world of microengineering and challenge stereotypes about engineering.

lizzy.buchan@edinburghnews.com