Prof. V Kumaran is a senior professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Prof. Kumaran has been carrying out research on many topics in the areas of ?uid mechanics and statistical mechanics. He is the recipient of The Infosys Prize 2016 in Engineering and Computer Science for his work in complex fluids and complex flows and especially in transition and turbulence in soft-walled tubes and channels. His work is of high practical utility in cardiovascular and pulmonary health. His work, characterized by high quality applied mathematics and theoretical physics combined with innovative experiments and simulation, has been translated into innovative technologies for lab-on-a-chip devices for point-of-care diagnostics.
The interview was done by ABLE’s external content contributor, Anusha Ashwin, under the guidance of Senior Editorial Consultant to ABLE, Srinivas Rao Chandan. Excerpts of the interview …
eN-ABLE: You have done extensive work on understanding the fluid dynamics. When did you become aware that this knowledge can be applied in developing a lab-on-chip?
Prof. Kumaran: The prospect of shrinking all the functions of a diagnostic lab onto a small chip was first raised about 15-20 years ago. At that time, the prospect was considered to be eminently feasible, when the first devices such as blood glucose meters became commercially available. However, it was soon realized that there are technological barriers for realizing more complicated testing protocols which involved sample preparation steps. It was at this point that I realized that some of the work we were doing could be of importance in surmounting these technological barriers.
eN-ABLE: Could you explain about your association with the start-up MicroX Labs?
Prof. Kumaran: I was associated as technical advisor with this start-up, which was incubated at the Society of Innovation and Development at the Indian Institute of Science.
eN-ABLE: What was the initial theory behind lab-on-chip?
Prof. Kumaran: The initial idea was to shrink all the functionalities of a full-fledged diagnostic lab on to a chip the size of a credit card. All the fluid pumping, reagent mixing, measuring and sensing would be fit onto this card of small size.
eN-ABLE: Can the lab-on-chip fulfil all diagnostic capabilities of an analytical diagnostic instrument?
Prof. Kumaran: If the challenges in sample preparation and mixing at small scales are surmounted, it is possible to technologically realize all the diagnostic capabilities on a chip of small size. However, an important consideration is cost. In mass-produced POC devices, the cost of a cartridge needs to be less than the cost of a diagnostic test in a laboratory. Currently, micro-fabrication is very expensive and requires large machines. So, manufacturability at large scale is also an important consideration for commercial success.
eN-ABLE: What can this chip diagnose?
Prof. Kumaran: The chip we are currently working on is a blood cell counting device, which provides RBC, WBC, differential and hemoglobin counts.
eN-ABLE: When commercially launched, how do you view its diagnostic capabilities?
Prof. Kumaran: The capabilities are likely to be same as the current blood cell counting devices. However, all tests are achieved in a low-cost small-footprint low-power reader the size of a toaster which can be deployed in resource-challenged environments.
eN-ABLE: Does IISc draw expertise from other Universities in India and abroad for the development of the lab-on-chip?
Prof. Kumaran: IISc does have collaborations with universities in India and abroad. Typically, a single product utilizes multiple technology platforms such as sample preparation, sensing and electronic signal processing, and this expertise are available at widespread locations. So, we do approach the experts in the relevant areas to complement the expertise that we have.
eN-ABLE: Is the chip’s diagnosis limited to only cardiac related diagnosis or is it capable of diagnosing infectious diseases and cancer?
Prof. Kumaran: As I said before, the current device is a blood cell counter. However, the technology platform can be used for different assays including infectious diseases and cancer.
eN-ABLE: When compared with the developments of lab-on-chips in the western world, where does India stand in terms of research and launch?
Prof. Kumaran: Fundamental research capabilities in India are at the same level as that in the rest of the world. The problem is that we have relatively fewer number of researchers in any specialized area, whereas the western world has a critical mass in any niche area of advancing research. For translation from idea to product, the ecosystem for sophisticated fabrication and manufacturing is relatively less developed. This makes it more difficult to productize an innovation.
eN-ABLE: When launched, what would be the cost of diagnosis and will it be economically feasible for India?
Prof. Kumaran: Point-of-care diagnostic devices can be commercially viable only if the cost is comparable to or less than the cost in diagnostic laboratories. Currently, the cost for blood tests in diagnostic laboratories is of the order of Rs 200 per test, and that is the price point that has to be matched. These devices may not have a significant cost benefit in urban areas where there is a high density of diagnostic labs, but they do have an advantage in providing access to the rural population in low resource environments.
eN-ABLE: How far has the Government of India supported the development of lab-on-chips? What more is needed from the scientific bodies like DBT?
Prof. Kumaran: The Government has been very forward thinking. DBT has a separate agency, BIRAC, specifically for funding start-ups. There are other such agencies in other departments in the government. They do provide modest funding for early stage development. Government agencies always have the disadvantage that approvals take time due to the scrutiny required, but they are making an effort to reduce delays to the extent possible.
eN-ABLE: What is your advice to young start-up entrepreneurs who wish to pioneer in the development of lab-on-chips?
Prof. Kumaran: I have not really been an entrepreneur, so it would be difficult for me to give advice. However, the most successful entrepreneurs that I have seen are passionate about their efforts and their social impact; financial success has been of secondary importance.