Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto
This Molecular World

Speaker Profile:

Aaron Wheeler - Hacking Healthcare in a Refugee Camp

Aaron Wheeler

Populations displaced by humanitarian emergencies, including those who seek temporary shelter in refugee camps, are especially vulnerable to infectious disease, because of overcrowding, malnutrition, and limited access to healthcare. Unfortunately, disease-testing and treatment is often challenging in such settings because of the costs and logistical challenges associated with sample collection and transport to centralized laboratories. In response to this challenge, my group is bringing the laboratory to the refugee camp, in the form of an inexpensive, miniaturized, lab-on-a-chip.

The “chip” is a credit-card-sized microfluidic cartridge that we manufacture using hacked consumer-grade printers. The “lab” is a shoe-box sized instrument designed and built using tools common to the “maker” movement—3D printers, laser engravers, and Arduinos. Most importantly, the system is “open source,” meaning that any researcher or user may replicate it and put it to use as needed. We recently sent a team of researchers to Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya to evaluate the performance of our lab on a chip for on-site testing for disease in pin-prick samples of blood. The results were promising, suggesting that this strategy may be a winning one, with the potential for replication around the world. In this talk I will review my group’s progress with this project, and will speculate about the future of hacking healthcare in refugee camps and other settings of need.


Professor Aaron Wheeler earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry in 2003 from Stanford University. After a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA from 2003-2005, Wheeler moved to Toronto, Canada, to join the faculty of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. He is the Canada Research Chair of Bioanalytical Chemistry and his honours include the E.W.R. Steacie Fellowship (2015) and induction into the Royal Society of Canada’s New College of Scholars, Artists, and Scientists (2015). His research interests are in the development of new microfluidic tools to solve problems in chemistry, biology, and medicine. One of the prime technologies used in the Wheeler lab is digital microfluidics (or DMF), which enables the manipulation of discrete fluidic droplets on the surface on an array of electrodes coated with a hydrophobic insulator.