Rice University bioengineers have reprogrammed a laser cutter to etch 50,000 microwells per hour. The open-source, low-cost method for making microwells could reduce the cost of mass-producing metastatic microtumors and therapeutic microtissues for screening and research.

To study micrometastases in the lab, researchers grow multicellular aggregates of tumor cells. Traditionally, scientists have formed the aggregates by manually placing individual droplets of cells onto a plate using a pipette. An alternative method, however, makes many multicellular aggregates at once; cells are placed onto a test plate containing several thousand microscopic wells, or microwells.

Rice bioengineering researcher Jordan Miller and graduate student Jacob Albritton, the lead author of the new study, produced up to 50,000 microwells per hour by developing hardware and software modifications for a commercial CO2 laser cutter — the same kind of machine used to make trophies, jewelry, toys, acrylic figurines and other commercial products.

The team produces wells of different depths and shapes by varying the power and duration of the laser pulses, a technique that could produce specialized microwells that haven’t been available previously.

“Our next studies here at Rice will investigate early steps of cancer progression as metastatic microtumors begin to infiltrate the surrounding tissue,” Miller said. “And we’ve already distributed microwells to several other research groups around the country who have expressed interest in collaborating.”