"It requires a lot of know-how and hand-eye coordination," Porterfield said of patch clamping.
The chip, on the other hand, is automated and could be mass-produced in the future. Such a readily available chip could record reams more data than patch-clamping, he said.
Ion channels and pumps establish a difference in electrical potential across a cell's membrane, which cells use to create energy and transfer electrical signals. By quickly allowing ions in and out, they are useful for rapid cellular changes, the kind which occur in muscles, neurons and the release of insulin from pancreatic cells.
The chip currently can detect individual levels of different ions. Porterfield believes that with some modifications, however, the chip will be able to measure multiple ions at once and perform even more advanced functions such as electrically stimulating a cell with one electrode while recording the reaction with the remaining three.
Because ion channels are a prominent feature of the nervous system and elsewhere, they are a popular target for drugs. For example, lidocaine and Novocain target sodium-channels. In nature, some of the most potent venoms and toxins work by blocking these channels, including the venom of certain snakes and strychnine.
Porterfield's chip is technically classified as a "cell electrophysiology lab-on-a-chip." The device is further described in an article in the journal Sensors and Actuators, published online this month and scheduled to appear in the print edition in November.