Ayokunle (Ayo) Olanrewaju is assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of bioengineering. His research applies 3D microfabrication, autonomous microfluidics and molecular assays to address medical challenges in treating infectious and chronic diseases, such as HIV, tuberculosis and cancer. He develops technologies for rapid and user-friendly monitoring of medications on an on-going basis to help patients adhere to drug dosing schedules, prevent treatment failure and improve health outcomes. He aims to develop automated devices for use at the point of need, whether in a doctor’s office, patient’s home or field site.

Ayo received undergraduate and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Alberta, Canada, and his Ph.D. in biological and biomedical engineering from McGill University in Montreal. He completed postdoctoral training in mechanical engineering at UW, and he started as assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering and in UW Bioengineering in January 2022. 

UW BioE recently spoke with Ayo about his research, what he envisions for its future and what attracted him to UW. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re a co-author on research reported in Nature in May, done when you were a Ph.D. student at McGill University. The team developed 3D printed programmable “machines” that execute controlled microfluidic chain reactions without an outside power source. Tell us about how you tested your system, which uses a maze of microscopic conduits driven by capillary force.

Using this approach of microfluidic chain reactions, we demonstrated that we could automate multi-step processes that were time sensitive and precise. We showcased that with a COVID-19 antibody saliva test and a blood clotting test. The microchip was pre-loaded with all the reagents, we hit go, and then the geometry of the device dictated the sequence of events. We showed that we could do a fairly sensitive test detecting a small amount of an antibody. The blood clotting test came from wanting to push the limits of what we could do with timed steps. We put multiple built-in timers and several different mixing chambers in the chip. The compact and user-friendly format of these microfluidic chain reactions means that they have the potential to be used outside clinical labs.

How do you achieve complex, precisely timed protocols that are typically done in a lab?

The microfluidic chain reactions can move liquids around in the sequence that you want. They take the place of a person or robot coming in at “X” time to do a task. You want to stop and hold for a while, you want to flow for “X” amount of time, you want to mix a couple of things, and you crucially want it all to happen in sequence. You can do that in microfluidics traditionally, but you often need equipment or a person to do it. What these devices allow us to do in a unique way is put all the handling into the microfluidic device. You also get the benefits of miniaturization, so you do it a little bit faster, using less materials and reagents. Sometimes you can get more accurate results because you’re working at the size scale of the things you’re trying to detect.

You also chained four chips together to carry out 300 events. How might such a scalable system be used? 

Before we developed this approach, the most “hands-free” steps anybody had done – using only capillary forces – was eight. The architecture is inherently scalable, and the 300 was almost to prove that point. In terms of scaled-up applications, it could be used when screening reagents and doing quality control. You could test multiple samples on a single device and still have a small footprint. My personal hope is for it to get to the point where it’s so user friendly and accessible that other people can build on it and test out their own applications.

In April, you won a NanoES seed grant to fund your work on similar technology to design point-of-care devices that can monitor levels of antiretroviral drugs in people who take them to manage HIV. Tell us more about your research here at UW.

In my UW lab, we’re focused on how we can apply and improve the technology we developed in that Nature paper, and I’ve been immersing myself in one of the applications: How do we measure HIV medication levels?

I’ve been working closely with clinicians, and the problem we’re trying to solve is, how do we make sure that people maintain a high enough HIV drug concentration in their system to be effective? Clinicians, patients and others care about medication concentrations because they want treatment to work well, and they don’t want treatment failure or drug-resistant mutations of HIV.

“We’re using this microfluidic technology to develop a test that could be used in a doctor’s office, a patient’s home, or an event setting to check: Am I protected?

We’re using this microfluidic technology to develop a test that could be used in a doctor’s office, a patient’s home, or an event setting to check: Am I protected?  This will be a way to give people more information and hopefully more agency about their own health, and also help improve the conversation between people who are receiving HIV medication and their health care providers. We want to take advantage of the portability, the speed and the flexibility of this microfluidic platform to try to solve this problem.

Is there anything else about your research program at UW that you’d like to share?

Since I moved to UW, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of bioengineers. On one level, pushing the limits of this microfluidic chain reaction work is very curiosity-driven. For me, the power of this technology comes from when we can make the tech side a little bit boring. How do we make it reliable and capable enough to move behind the scenes and focus on applications? How do we get it into the hands of non-microfluidics researchers and citizen scientists who have problems? How do we get it into spaces where it translates beyond the lab?

I want my lab to keep our core expertise, but we’re also building collaborations with the School of Medicine, asking: Where are the problems and how do we solve them? I’m excited to walk this line between the curiosity-driven and the needs-driven and bring technologies that people can take and run with.

What inspired your interest in bioengineering? And what makes it meaningful for you?

I grew up in a town where the two main employers were a university teaching hospital and a big cement factory, and I grew up around a lot of people who worked in healthcare and who were engineers. Being exposed to both very early really cultivated an interest in math and physics, but also a desire to see how these sciences applied to people’s lives. What makes bioengineering meaningful for me is seeing that impact and how, in a tangible way, it makes people’s health and well-being better.

You’ve done research in Germany, Canada and the U.S. What attracted you to UW? What opportunities excite you here?

UW as an institution has very strong links between the School of Medicine and the College of Engineering, and those links are continuing to grow. There have been many recent appointments and strategic moves to deepen that relationship. That really appealed to me within the microfluidics and global health spaces that I work in. It’s exciting to be part of this community that makes it easy for us to work across disciplinary boundaries. I’ve worked with clinicians at the Center for AIDS Research at Harborview Medical Center, who have made it very easy to get access to clinical samples, to learn from their point of view and think about not just what technology we should make, but why, and is it worth it? For me, to have impact, it’s really helpful to be in these kinds of spaces.

Cell Mentor recently recognized you as a top 1,000 inspiring Black scientist and UW undergraduates have already honored you with a Research Mentor Award. What’s something you wish everyone knew about finding connection and having a voice?

Having empathy and a desire to understand where other people are coming from is really big. There’s a philosophical side of me that thinks about the role chance and timing plays; nobody gets to pick where they’re born, where they’re from, and necessarily who they are. As engineers, we may think we’re doing things objectively, but having an understanding of the historical, societal, cultural, moral context for our work – the ethical parts of our work – really matters. There’s this real importance of taking the time and the energy to understand historical and cultural context, but also the personal context for people in the places where we work. Thinking about this makes me want to cultivate spaces where everyone feels like they belong and that they can bring their whole selves to work.

What is something that most people probably don’t know about you?

Although my name “Ayo” is not so common here in North America, it’s actually a remarkably common name in Southwest Nigeria where I grew up. “Ayo” means “Joy” and is a prefix in many Yoruba names. My full first name, “Ayokunle,” means “Joy fills the house.”