Sepsis is a big killer here in the United States. I know that I don’t really think about that in a normal day, but it’s the truth, and we can’t ignore it. As of 2005, it was the 10th leading cause of death and was just one of two infectious conditions listed in the leading 15 causes of death. Sepsis develops in 750,000 Americans annually, and more than 210,000 die. (That’s a mortality rate of 28 %!) Sepsis not only kills, but it’s accountable for $16.7 billion in annual economic burden. You can see why we need to focus on sepsis, but what is it exactly? Well, sepsis is a response by our bodies to systemic microbial infections. A range of pathogens can cause this reaction, and there is still no clear answer for all the effects on the body that are attributed to sepsis. In general, sepsis is believed to be caused by an infectious agent that compromises the immune system, leaving it unable to properly clear microbes. Treatments for sepsis have included antibiotics, recombinant drugs, membrane blood filtration and blood transfusions. However, these therapies don’t work effectively enough, and many patients die. Hemofiltration and hemadsorption have also been used to clear the blood, but these techniques can also non-specifically remove blood proteins such as cytokines, which are necessary to fight infectious agents. Whole blood transfusions are able to remove the pathogens, but at the expense of the patient’s own immune components and cells that are needed to keep fighting the infection. With all this stacked against us, what are we to do? Turn to a microfluidic therapy I guess.
If you have read a few posts here at Microfluidic Future, you know I love when microfluidics can be applied in therapy. The technology lends itself well to diagnostics, so any bit of therapeutics always piques my interests. A microfluidics device to combat sepsis has been outlined in “Micromagnetic-microfluidic blood cleansing device.” Donald Ingber et al. of the Wyss Institute describe a device capable of clearing the fungal pathogen Candida albicans from the blood. This work builds on previous efforts by Ingber and is 1000 times faster. The patient’s bloodstream could be hooked up to the device, which would clear the blood of the targeted pathogens.
At the heart of this system are magnetic opsonins. These are magnetic micro- or nano-beads that are bound to specific antibodies, in our case, they are anti-C. albicans. This device aims to remove the pathogens from the blood using these opsonins. The authors were able to achieve a binding efficiency of 80% with a bead to pathogen ratio of 120. Although 90% binding occurred between 30 and 60 minutes, about 50% binding was achieved after 5 minutes. The authors believed that a shorter incubation time can be achieved if the device were multiplexed. For example, if each of these devices were longer or attached to each other in series, we could overcome the efficiency of a single device. We could also use multiple devices working simultaneously in parallel, so the entire patient's blood could be processed faster.
Magnetic Microfluidic Cleansing
The fundamental unit of this device is a set of layered channels that provides an interface between the patient’s blood and a carrier fluid. The two fluids are stacked vertically, with blood on the bottom. A solenoid electromagnet creates a magnetic field which draws the opsonins and their fungal passengers into the carrier fluid. The voltage of the electromagnet was optimized to provide a magnetic field that did not cause an overly strong attraction of the particles, which would have caused them to accumulate on the side of the channel instead of flowing with the carrier fluid.
According to the authors, this lab-on-a-chip performed relatively well in modularity and effectiveness in clearing C. albicans. . This device doesn’t involve much external infrastructure (besides the included electromagnet) and could easily function well in point-of-care therapeutics. To evaluate its performance, the authors attempted to clear C. albicans from 10 mL of human whole blood. The concentration of pathogens in this experiment was 106 fungi/mL. The system was able to clear 80% of the pathogen in 30 minutes, which is pretty good. This device may require some heparin to prevent clots within the device, but it would not result in lethal clot formations, hypoperfusion, shock and multiple organ failure seen in current therapies. Additionally, 82% of the opsonins that weren’t bound to the pathogen were cleared as well, which is great because I don’t think that you would want that flowing through your system. This actually leads me to some shortcomings I see in this project, and what I’d like to see in the future.
- To start, only 10 mL of blood was processed, and it took 30 min (20mL/h). In a 70 kg male with 4.9 L of blood, it would take about 10 days to process all the blood. But the authors are aware of this, and they’ve proposed additions in serial and in parallel to enhance the clearance efficiency and to do it faster.
- During the filtration process, the authors noted that the blood and carrier fluid did not split perfectly at the end of the channels and a resulting in 50-60% loss of blood. This is obviously not good for the patient. The carrier fluid in that case was PBS, and the loss was reduced to 13% when the flow of the PBS was increased. With a ratio of flow between the fluids of four, the carrier fluid was able to force the blood to remain in place. But this comes at a cost, because this could imaginably hinder the opsonins’ migration from the blood into the carrier fluid, but the extent of this hindrance has not been quantified by the authors.
- Although the volume of blood processed can be increased by adding layers to the system, I really don’t know if the authors tackled a clinically relevant level of C. albicans in the blood. I’ve been trying to find out a lethal level of C. albicans, but haven’t been able to find it. This would significantly impact the value of the system and would necessitate further multiplexing to achieve higher pathogen levels.
- Finally, I’m not sure how the authors intend to deliver the opsonins to the blood. In this paper, the opsonins were simply incubated in the blood. In the graphics of the device on the cover of Lab on a Chip, the opsonins are introduced to the blood flow shortly before entering the device. This is possible according to the authors if proper multiplexing occurs and binding can be achieved within five minutes. Otherwise, it may be necessary to inject the opsonins into the patient and allow them to incubate before hooking them up to the lab-on-a-chip. But I’m not sure if that is such a good idea.
- On a related note, I’m interested in the biocompatibility of the opsonins. The authors demonstrated that they bound rather specifically well to the pathogen, and the red blood cells were left untouched. Although the opsonins are quite small (which could make it worse) they could end up all over the body, giving Magneto even more control over you!
I mentioned previously that this paper followed up on previous work done by Ingber, so I think it is safe to say that we’ll be seeing the next iteration in some time. Conceivably, this device could be applied to other pathogens if other opsonins are developed, so this device has a lot of room to grow.
Melamed, A., & Sorvillo, F. (2009). The burden of sepsis-associated mortality in the United States from 1999 to 2005: an analysis of multiple-cause-of-death data Critical Care, 13 (1) DOI: 10.1186/cc7733
Hotchkiss, R., & Karl, I. (2003). The Pathophysiology and Treatment of Sepsis New England Journal of Medicine, 348 (2), 138-150 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra021333
Yung, C., Fiering, J., Mueller, A., & Ingber, D. (2009). Micromagnetic–microfluidic blood cleansing device Lab on a Chip, 9 (9) DOI: 10.1039/b816986a