New CO2 Laser Technique Isolates Cancer Cells
Erin Green posted on February 02, 2016 |
Open-source software enables mass-production of test environments for microtumors.

A new technique developed by a team of bioengineers at Rice University has the potential to make cancer screening much easier—and it uses lasers to do so.

The technique uses a modified commercial CO2 laser cutter reprogrammed with open-source software to drill what the team calls “microwells” into silicone sheets.

“We found we could create a conical well with a millisecond laser pulse in a sheet of polydimethylsiloxane or PDMS,” said graduate student Jacob Albritton.

Have a look at the laser in action:

 

A Method for Micrometastases Research

This new technique for drilling microwells comes in light of current practices for researching cancer micrometastases.

 “In the field of cancer biology, multicellular aggregates are used to model cancer micrometastases—small microtumors that can occur in high numbers in cancer patients,” said Jordan Miller, a bioengineering researcher at Rice University.

“Most of these [microtumors] remain dormant, but some will actually grow into a full-blown tumor that can threaten the patient,” Miller continued. “We don’t know exactly how the environmental conditions around a microtumor can promote or suppress this dangerous transition, but one way to investigate this process is with screening studies that involve large numbers of aggregates placed into defined environments.”

However, the investigation gets a little tricky when it relies on manual labor to place individual droplets of cells onto a plate. This method can very easily result in unusable samples.

Microwells are one solution to this issue of impractical testing.

 

Mass-Producing Microwells

The research team's customized laser cutter etches up to 50,000 microwells per hour into sheets of silicone. (Image courtesy of Jeff Fitlow/Rice University.)

The research team's customized laser cutter etches up to 50,000 microwells per hour into sheets of silicone. (Image courtesy of Jeff Fitlow/Rice University.)

“Microwells can be used to grow tiny clusters of cells,” said Miller. “These clusters, or multicellular aggregates, contain 50 to 100 cells and have many potential applications, but they have been difficult to mass-produce.”

Although microwells are available commercially for these purposes, they can be quite expensive. The drilling technique provides a more affordable option. According to Miller, “Using our technique, it costs around $30 to fabricate 100,000 microwells. This is less than one-tenth the cost of commercial sources.”

With the ability to mass-produce microwells, the researchers expect to produce much more reliable test results to assist with micrometastases screening. They also expect their research to lead to advances in regenerative medicine, since the wells could be used to fabricate tissues and organs from a donor’s cells.

For more information, check out the team’s research paper here.

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