Hi Miguel, thanks for speaking with us today. Can I start by asking you what you think are the key capabilities of the microfabrication and prototyping facility?
The facilities most important capability is multilayer photolithography with alignment of a photomask. In this process light is used to transfer geometric patterns from a photomask to a photosensitive chemical photoresist on a substrate - a series of chemical treatments then etches the exposure pattern into the material. This method can create extremely small patterns, down to a few tens of nanometers in size and provides precise control of the shape and size of the objects it creates. We use this system to make microfluidic devices, organs-on-a-chip, biosensors, microelectrodes, implantable devices, micropatterned substrates, microelectromechanical systems and microneedles – just about any small prototype you want, we should be able to make it.
Many cleanrooms use older equipment – some masks aligners from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s take minutes of illumination for example. Ours needs only half a second to achieve the same level of incident light energy! We are imminently about to get a new system from France that will enable us to do maskless photolithography in which the pattern in the photoresist etching is created by exposing it to light directly without using a mask. This can lead to significant time and costs savings since you do not need to get masks printed with each prototyping cycle. Also, in the future 3D printing bioplotters will allow us to directly print hydrogels and cells which may be very useful for working with organoids.
Who are you working with in the facility at the moment and who are you looking to work with?
At the moment I am working with Convergence Science PhD students, MRes Cancer Technology project students, and a post-doctoral researcher. We recently got the equipment up and running and have been testing it within the Bioengineering department first to make sure that everything is working fine. We now have it ready to open up for business. The equipment it really straightforward and intuitive to use once you’ve been trained. If you are interested in doing fabrication, we encourage you to get in touch.
Do you train people in how to use the equipment and then leave them to their own devices?
Yes exactly. The facility will provide training for researchers undertaking device fabrication. Training is always free, and we will provide as much as you need. For example, some users have already had a lot of experience making prototypes and they just need training on the specific piece of equipment rather than the whole process. However, there will be some people who are completely new to microfabrication and may require a few days training.
Once you are trained, I will leave you to your own devices to optimise for your requirements as there are lots of factors that are going to influence how it turns out (it is a bit of an art) but I am always on hand for advice and we also have a big technical team in the department so there is always someone there to help you.
What are some exciting cancer convergence science projects that are currently underway at the facility?
I did my PhD in cancer and some of the projects underway at the facility really excite me – one of my favourites comes from a Convergence Science Centre PhD student working on a project with Dr Sam Au at Imperial and Professor Chris Bakal at the ICR on the biomechanical activation of pro-metastatic programs in circulating tumour cells by vasculature constriction forces. The student is trying to simulate human capillaries to study how circulating tumour cells would behave while being exposed to those forces and so she is using the facility to construct microfluidic capillaries. This is tricky because when you make tiny microfluidics channels, a speck of dust is going to alter the whole flow. The great thing about having this new equipment is that you are working in safety cabinets to keep it dust free and sterile, which really helps with reproducibility and will save you a lot of time.
We are also working on projects to pass cells through microfluidic channels to better simulate the in-situ interactions between immune cells and circulating cancer cells, which is very important for studying metastases.
How do you recommend colleagues at Imperial and the ICR go about accessing the facility?
We expect that in the first instance most users will be from ICR and Imperial collaborative teams and equipment access is via the PPMS booking system. I have set up the Microfabrication core facilities on this system so either an internal or external user can make an account and request access. I would recommend getting in touch with me (email below) for support setting up your account. Once you have your account you can request training through the site – the request will come to me and I will organise the training. When trained is done I will grant people autonomous rights and then they will be able to book.
If you are Cancer Research UK Convergence Science Centre funded, you can select this affiliation on the system and then this means you will not be charged for the use of the equipment (and only charged for consumables). Also, if you are a new research group funded by the Centre, we are offering you your first 24 hours free. Overall, our rates are competitive.
Finally, what information do you need from collaborators when they get in touch with you?
When requesting access and training through the system it will ask you to provide information on your project and what you want to do. I would also recommend getting in touch with me to discuss in more detail – sometimes a quick call is better than back and forth over email. If people are new to microfabrication it can be useful to discuss further to make sure they have everything needed for the experiment design and to consider if there may be an easier way to approach the problem. If you are interested in using the facility, please get in touch.
For information, please contact Miguel Hermida Ayala