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The University of Missouri installs Nanoscribe Quantum X Shape

Thanks to a nearly $1 million grant from the US Army ERDC, researchers are now able to fabricate a complex microfluidic filter that would allow doctors to efficiently recover cancer cells from patients' blood without damaging the cells

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According to the University of Missouri College of Engineering (Mizzou Engineering), researchers have spent eight years trying to figure out a way to fabricate a complex microfluidic filter that would allow doctors to efficiently recover cancer cells from patients’ blood without damaging the cells. Now, thanks to a new Nanoscribe Quantum X Shape high-resolution 3D printer that was purchased with the help of a nearly $1 million grant from the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC).

“We have been working to fabricate a new design since 2021, and this printer showed that it can accomplish that in 20 seconds during a demonstration,” said Elliott Leinauer, an electrical engineering Ph.D. student, at the University of Missouri.

“The significance of the Nanoscribe printer is that it can print at resolutions smaller than the fundamental length scale of many interesting engineering problems, including biological cells and even the wavelength of light,” said Matt Maschmann, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and co-director of the University of Missouri Materials Science and Engineering Institute. “Simultaneously, it can fabricate patterns up to 3 inches in diameter, making it a very robust tool for many applications.”

Those applications range from life sciences to microelectronics, to advanced optics for security and defense, according to Maschmann.

The University of Missouri installs Nanoscribe Quantum X Shape to fabricate a complex microfluidic filter to recover cancer cells.

“This device is exciting for our research on new meta-materials for advanced optics that were designed by and for artificial intelligence,” said Professor Derek Anderson, principal investigator of the ERDC grant. “We have done much computationally and in simulation, and this device allows us to make prototypes to validate, compare, and further our studies.”

Leinauer’s research focuses on finding a precise approach to let doctors extract live cancer cells from a simple blood draw – an important application because it opens up more customized methods to determine the best treatment. Right now, oncologists recommend chemotherapy, radiation, and other cancer treatments based on what’s been successful in the past. Being able to study a patient’s metastasizing cancer cells instead would allow doctors to test and recommend the best treatment based on that patient’s specific needs.

“Right now, when you try to extract cancer cells, they get damaged or die during the process,” said Leinauer. “We use a fabrication processes called photolithography to develop a filter that can capture the cancer cells. This fabrication process is the act of transferring micro/nano-scale geometric patterns from a photomask to a silicon wafer.”

The filter has a maze-like pattern that traps cancer cells, which are typically larger than most other cells. However, until now, there wasn’t a way to get them out of their filter without potential damage. To alleviate this problem, Leinauer had the idea of making a design that could change shapes to release the captured cancer cells more easily without damaging them.

“The idea is that you use external loads to alter the geometry of the channels, converting this maze-like pattern into something more simplistic, which creates these fluidic highways for captured cells to escape the filter easily,” he said. “It’s a complex design, and fabrication was a significant barrier. This printer fixes that. It integrates photolithography fabrication methods with 3D printing of geometric designs at speeds and accuracy never before possible.”

The University of Missouri installs Nanoscribe Quantum X Shape to fabricate a complex microfluidic filter to recover cancer cells.

Maschmann reportedly envisions using the Nanoscribe Quantum X Shape for current research on semiconductor device patterning, as it can pattern circuits at the micro level. The printer can also provide tiny geometrical designs that would allow him and his collaborators to grow carbon nanotube films in specific patterns.

The technology may also be applied to advanced heat transfer applications. “It can manipulate liquid droplets for enhanced two-phase heat transfer,” said Maschmann. “When small droplets make contact, they release a lot of surface energy, energy so large that liquid hops off of a surface, which is great for heat transfer.”

Leinauer compared Quantum X shape’s technological advancement to going directly from the 30-ton computers of the 1940s to the latest smartphone.

“Mizzou is already a first-class research institution, but this sets us apart,” he said. “This is break-away technology. It allows us to pursue novel ideas that were simply unfeasible due to the limitations presented by traditional fabrication processes like photolithography. This printer completely changes what can be made and does so with relative ease, unshackling researchers from the bounds of yesterday’s fabrication capabilities to accelerate innovation.”

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