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Our opinion: Oregon poised to revolutionize future of health care – one drop at a time

Authors say when federal government decides which tech hubs to fund, Oregon's history of collaboration should make us more competitive
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The lab of Luiz Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D., pictured, at OHSU has developed a number of innovative technologies, including “Lab-on-a-Chip” microfluidics technologies that give insight into how tissues respond to an invasion of cancer cells. (OHSU)

This viewpoint was originally published in The Portland Tribune on June 6, 2024.

When the White House designated a Tech Hub in Oregon last fall — making us eligible for $50 million in federal funding — we were already in elite company. While three other states received this federal seal of approval for hubs related to increasing U.S. semiconductor production, only the Oregon site took a broader view to use the power of this work to not just spur manufacturing, but also to spur new treatments to fight cancer.

At Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), we’ve collaborated with HP Inc. because their innovations in manipulating the tiniest droplets of water — borne out of their own history in the printing business — enable us to recreate tiny areas of a tumor, to simulate how cancer cells move in a patient. At the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, we are committed to ending cancer as we know it, and we can’t do that without collaborators like HP and the technology they bring to our labs.

That’s what makes the Oregon-based Corvallis Microfluidics Tech Hub (CorMic) such an essential project here in Oregon and for our nation. It’s the private sector and public sector collaboration that ensures sharing of resources, research and talent, so doctors in Eugene, entrepreneurs in Corvallis, and researchers in labs like ours in Portland can work together in common purpose and with common funding.

Microfluidics may be little-known to most of the world, but the technology’s potential is enormous, and Oregon is a leader in the field. Microfluidics is a technology that controls and manipulates microscopic amounts of liquids that are funneled through tiny channels, often smaller in diameter than a human hair. Industry applications of microfluidics devices have been growing since the 1980s, and the rapid growth of semiconductors and high-speed computing has created a parallel demand surge for microfluidics.

At OHSU, we use microfluidics technology to research new methods to detect and find cures for cancer. For example, OHSU has developed “Lab-on-a-Chip” microfluidics technologies that help us learn how tissues respond to an invasion of cancer cells, study how cancer spreads, personalize patient treatments, and test different drug combinations. By tailoring therapies to individuals, we can focus on improving treatment and minimizing side effects. This marks a paradigm shift in medicine, increasingly replacing a one-size-fits-all approach with targeted and personalized interventions.

CorMic, as a consortium of academic, industry and community leaders led by Oregon State University, strives to build a supportive environment that rewards cross-disciplinary collaboration. These collaborations position Oregon as a microfluidics global leader, ready to revolutionize diagnostics, drug development, and treatment monitoring, leading to effective, patient-centric health care. Development of other potential affiliations will be supercharged as CorMic takes shape, with HP and OHSU’s long-running collaboration serving as a blueprint for the future. CorMic members are committed to deepening and exploring public-private partnerships to foster and support innovation, research, economic and product development.

OHSU’s progress on microfluidics cancer research goes hand-in-hand with expanding collaborations with HP. Currently, a lab at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute has been using an early version of HP’s microfluidics-based reagent dispenser to perform cancer drug combination screens in their clinical research. The Knight Cancer Precision Biofabrication Hub is using HP’s single cell bioprinting instruments to engineer better models of cancer tissues to improve drug screening and evaluate proteins in cancer and other age-related diseases. Our research is also paving the way for a higher quality of life for cancer patients. OHSU, Oregon State University and HP recently teamed up to propose a tiny, implantable microfluidics device that could be controlled remotely to release drugs into a patient’s bloodstream continuously, allowing the patient to avoid taking an oral pill or receiving a chemotherapy infusion in the hospital.

Statewide, the collaborations through the CorMic Tech Hub aim to help our full community, ensuring our high-growth biotech sector continues to serve a diversifying and younger talent base. Strong partnerships already in place at CorMic committed to research, collaboration and technological advancements do more than make us an attractive place to invest, they literally change the world.

When the federal government decides which hubs to dedicate funding to this summer, our state’s history of collaboration should make us more competitive.

Our future success with this technology will only come from strong, collaborative partnerships between industry and academia. By continuing to encourage, recognize and prioritize cross-industry collaboration in the microfluidics industry, Oregon is poised to transform the future of health care. We look to the future as partners in a growing, cutting-edge field, where smallest amounts of liquid are paving the way for breakthroughs in health care — one drop at a time.

Christie Dudenhoefer, M.S., is the head of HP Life Science Business.

Luiz Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D., is an associate professor in the OHSU School of Medicine, Division of Oncological Sciences and the School of Dentistry; and director of the Knight Cancer Precision Biofabrication Hub at the Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research (CEDAR) Center in the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

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