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[Summer series] Charles Baroud - Biology, drop by drop

Charles Baroud, researcher at the Hydrodynamics Laboratory of l'X, reinvents biological protocols thanks to microfluidics

©Silvère Leprovost

In his office in the Hydrodynamics Laboratory of École Polytechnique, interspersed amongst his scientific journal articles are microchannels: small plates of glass and plastic, of the size of a business card, in which microfluidic networks of channels are etched. Since December, this is the room where Charles Baroud spends part of the week, while the rest of the time he is at the Pasteur Institute leading a joint research group, “Physical Microfluidics and Bioengineering”.

Between several disciplines

As someone who is involved in two laboratories and several disciplines, this researcher blurs the boundaries between the sciences. Already at the age of 17 at MIT, he pursued parallel studies in engineering and physics. His dual focus can also be seen in his need for both invention and understanding. “With engineering, I manipulate and develop tools. With fundamental science, I seek scientific depth”, says the scientist who, already as a child, explored the inner workings of his toy cars by taking them apart, “without breaking them”.

Laboratories drop by drop

When he became a research professor at École Polytechnique in 2002, he discovered the field of microfluidics and the associated techniques that aimed to reinvent the protocols of biology and medical diagnostics by manipulating samples in integrated and miniaturized devices, “genuine labs on a chip”. The discipline, which was then still in its infancy, offered him a wide open field for exploration.

Charles Baroud quickly sensed the interest of combining mature technologies, such as lasers, with microfluidic flows. This lead to a revelation. “In an experiment where a water-oil interface was illuminated with a laser, the light immediately blocked the movement of the fluids, thereby acting as a valve. The discovery was completely unexpected. Realizing the potential of this observation, we immediately filed patents”, he recalls. Over the years, other related inventions for droplet manipulation emerged. These led in turn to the creation of a start-up, Stilla Technologies, to leverage the different innovations in order to perform precision genetic detection.

A collaboration with biologists

With experimentation always a foremost concern, as when at the age of three he tried to measure the “temperature of fire” with a medical thermometer, Charles Baroud strives today to share these “extremely powerful” technologies with biologists, notably those from the Institut Pasteur. The joint research group will be working on a variety of issues with an impact on society, such as the growing resistance to antibiotics which has become a global issue with considerable health and economic consequences.

“By using the tools that we have developed and our quantitative approach, we will be able to observe the effects of drugs on the scale of an individual cell, rather than on a population of cells as is the case today,” the scientist explains. “This will allow our collaborators to identify the mechanism by which certain cells adapt to their environment and develop resistance, and potentially discover predictive markers of these cells”. Charles Baroud plans to continue expanding collaborations with other laboratories and other disciplines.

Find all the portraits of researchers of our summer series, here.