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Bubble revolution

More on the University's work with microbubbles

Deeper dive

Bubbles and your work

Bubble talk

Nearly 60 years ago, a crane was brought in to lift a huge computer 'capable of addition and subtraction' into the disused Eldon Chapel across from our Chemistry building. Today, think about all the things the little microchip in your phone can do.

Microbubbles will be to drugs and manufacturing what microchips were to computing. Goodbye swishing chemicals around in beakers, hello creating precise mixtures of fluids on a chip.

In the near future, microbubbles will float through the human body to carry a drug to its target. And beyond medicine, you’ll see how very small mixtures will revolutionise some manufacturing processes.

What’s a microbubble?

Imagine a soap bubble that’s 100th the size of a human hair. It includes a gas core and a surrounding shell.

Why would such a small bubble be useful?

It already is. Microbubbles were developed in the 1990s to improve the clarity of ultrasound. They help measure blood flow in organs because their gas core reflects stronger ultrasound waves better than tissue does.

Scientists started thinking, 'if these bubbles can safely travel around the human body, let’s get a drug to hitch a ride and be dropped off exactly where we want it to go.'

"If these bubbles can safely travel around the human body, let’s get a drug to hitch a ride and be dropped off exactly where we want it to go."

how microbubble works

Why microbubbles?

With a targeted, triggered release of a drug, a far smaller dose would be needed than with chemotherapy, which can affect other parts of the body.

Fewer side effects

Side effects could potentially decrease dramatically and patients could recover more quickly. By delivering small doses directly to a tumour, more powerful drugs could come into use. A drug could be personalised to a patient on the spot, thanks to a portable device, the HORIZON, developed at Leeds.

More benefits

Initial tests show that the use of microbubbles has higher therapeutic benefit than the systematic injection of the drug alone.

How many academics does it take to blow a bubble?

Microbubbles, although a simple concept, involve a diverse group of experts.  At Leeds, enthusiastic undergraduates, PhD students, researchers, eminent academics and hospital clinicians have made the University a world leader in microbubble production.

The Leeds Microbubble Consortium brings together engineers, physicists, chemists and cancer specialists from across the University.

Physics professor and head of the Consortium, Stephen Evans, says: "Never before have scientists and clinicians been able to generate microbubbles as they want them – with different sizes, with consistency, with different surfaces and different products within the bubble.

"With the breadth of expertise available at Leeds we were in a good position to make a breakthrough, and we did. Our HORIZON machine is the first of its kind. It can quickly create personalised bubbles for each patient and can be used with a standard ultrasound machine."

To start with, Leeds work focussed on colorectal tumours, mainly due to expert oncologists in our Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine.

Suggestions flow in on how microbubbles can help other conditions – perhaps they could destroy a blood clot, add oxygen to the blood stream or create tiny explosions that burn away a tumour layer by layer. Might there be applications for your work?

Change in emphasis

Microbubbles have opened new opportunities in a variety of disciplines. "There’s been a change in emphasis in Physics," says Professor Evans. "We’re now taking more medical problems and getting inspiration from biology. The most popular projects for physics students are on microbubbles."

Blowing bubbles, far from child's play

If you're not a scientist or engineer, and you want to explain this with authority, we'll help you learn some microbubble vocabulary.

For more detail, dive deeper

Drug delivery with microbubbles isn't yet ready for use on patients. Leeds is focussing research on colorectal cancer.












Horizon chip

Remember we mentioned computer chips?

Because a single dose of medicine requires 10 million microbubbles, it’s imperative that they be the same size, with a uniform amount of drug in each bubble. They also need to be produced quickly.

Bring in the first commercial chip-based microfluidic microbubble generating machine in the world, developed right here at Leeds. The HORIZON is portable, practical and speedy – making 109 bubbles in 3 minutes.

It comes with a plastic chip, around the size of a microscope slide, which has tiny channels engraved on it. Different constituents are sent down different channels until they self assemble around a gas bubble. Each microscopic bubble has a consistent size and dosage.

"Our machine opens boundless opportunities," says Professor Evans. "Just like what happened with computer processing, drug making will become miniaturised. Both kinds of chip have very small channels where small amounts are manipulated and controlled."

The same technology could be used, for example, for an early detection system for cancer cells or for food, cosmetics and water-based paint.

"Both kinds of chip have very small channels where small amounts are manipulated and controlled."

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