Currently, researchers know what heparin looks like and what enzymes are required to make it, but they don’t quite know how it’s made. “It’s like having all the materials and tools required to build a house and knowing what the final house looks like, and then having someone say, ‘Okay, go build the house,’” Linhardt says. “What we need is a blueprint. We need to know how these tools function together, how the house is assembled.” He likens the microfluidics chip to a house-building DIY reel, one that “tells us how to hammer nails, how to saw, how to assemble struts, how to put walls in.” By testing reagents in different amounts, with different reaction times, the artificial Golgi may be able to teach them how to synthesize heparin and other molecules in a laboratory setting.
“It’s a fusion of engineering and biology,” says Jeffrey Esko, a glycobiologist at the University of California, San Diego. “One can do this in test tubes, but the chip provides a way to automate the process on a microscale.” The chip also allows for precise control over each individual interaction, and at a small scale.
With the help of their microchip and substantial funding from the National Institutes of Health, Linhardt believes that they should be able to bring bioengineered heparin into clinical trials within the next five years.