Despite playing a central role in curbing some of humanity’s biggest health crises, microfiltration is often overlooked as a healthcare innovation.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that filtration is one of the most important developments in health and hygiene throughout history.
We wanted to bring to light just how vital microfiltration is by exploring how it is being used to help with vital healthcare processes, from Mad Cow Disease to Malaria. Whether that’s with cutting-edge research, prevention or direct treatment, there are plenty of examples – here’s just a few of them.
1. Mad Cow Disease
Mad Cow Disease (BSE) is a disease found in cows that causes a progressive loss in neurons and eventually prevents the cow from being able to walk or stand.
It was infamous throughout the late 80s and 90s for plaguing the agricultural industry in the UK and various other locations around the world. Notably, the infection was passed on from animal to animal due to feeding cows’ meat and bone that contained the remains of other cows.
For humans, the disease can be spread from eating contaminated beef or exposure to infected blood from other humans. When contracted by humans the disease is known as Kreutzfeld-Jakob Disease (vCJD).
In recent years, a breakthrough came in the form of a filter developed to target the infectious proteins in blood to make it safe for transfusion. This was a difficult task as the BSE protein exists in very low concentrations. To filter it, a microfilter membrane, equipped with a compound that attracted them, was designed and successfully deployed.
Sepsis is a condition where the body fights infection with a response that is too extreme. Typically, it is in response to a bacterial infection in the blood, which is known as septicemia. The body releases a large number of chemicals that result in inflammation around the body and can sometimes cause lethal organ damage.
For the last decade, research has been underway on a microfilter that can be used to remove pathogens that are causing sepsis from the blood of patients.
The principle it uses is similar to dialysis. Blood is pumped out of the body and placed alongside a saline fluid that is there to draw pathogens out of the blood. Because the microfilters are so small, they don’t have room for mechanical parts that can draw these pathogens out.
To get around this, the device uses magnetism. Molecules that naturally bind with the pathogens are coated with magnetic beads. Once the molecules bind to the pathogens, a magnet is switched on and the pathogens are pulled away.
There are many types of cancer and, equally, many ways in which microfiltration is being used in the treatment of cancer and/or cancer research.
This includes filtering blood, culturing stem cells for research, the development of better cancer detection devices and even preventing cancer with some forms of air purification.
One of the most fascinating recent approaches is the use of microfilters to detect the squishiness of cells. Research indicates that cancer cells are squishier than normal cells. If there was a way to quickly check the squishiness of cells in the body, then it may provide a superior method of cancer diagnostics.
To do this, researchers have been exploring a technique known as the parallel microfiltration method. A mixture of liquid and cells is pushed through a microfiltration device and the more difficult a cell finds it to move through, the less likely it is to be a malignant cell.
With more refinement, this method may improve diagnostics of the more elusive cancer types, as well as collecting patient samples more accurately for study, diagnosis and treatment.
Malaria is a life-threatening disease transmitted to humans by parasites via mosquito bites. These parasites will then infect blood cells, causing them to burst and creating a series of complications, including organ failure and anaemia.
Current treatment for malaria involves a variety of antibiotics and antimalarial drugs that kill parasites in the body. However, treatment is not always simple. Several types of malaria parasites are resistant to treatment and they can remain dormant in the liver for a very long time.
Researchers have been trying to work around this by removing the parasites directly from the blood.
One approach coming out of UCL in London is known as the Medisieve. Similar to the microfilter sepsis treatment, it uses magnetism to bind parasites and then remove them from blood with a magnet.
The blood is passed through the loop several times and reduces the parasite burden on the patient by up to 90%.
Cholera is one of the most infamous waterborne diseases humans have dealt with. As one of the world’s oldest known diseases, there are reports of it having existed for over 2,000 years. Even today, the WHO estimates there to be 1 to 4 million cases a year and between 20,000 and 143,000 deaths a year from Cholera.
Cholera is spread by a bacteria that can be found in water sources and in food contaminated by infected people. The most effective way of preventing the spread of cholera is by ensuring that people have access to clean water.
Many of the world’s water sanitation processes use various forms of microfiltration but where microfiltration can continue to make a big impact is in the use of this technology in the developing world.
Affordable, localised water treatment filtration and individual water filters, such as the LifeStraw, can have a profound impact in reducing cholera outbreaks.
Microfiltration at Smart Separations
At Smart Separations, we’ve developed a completely customisable ceramic membrane that can be used in a wide variety of microfilter applications. Our own focus has been on the use of these membranes in cancer research, blood processes and stem cell research.
We believe that microfiltration will be crucial in the future development of medical techniques that may be able to offer the same outcomes without using potentially intrusive or ineffective chemical treatments.
If you’d like to learn more about what we’re doing at Smart Separations, then please get in touch.