Custom Kapton Stencil for Stanford University

In the United States heart disease is the leading cause of death, killing over 600,000 people per year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  While diet and exercise have been statistically proven to contribute to heart disease, there are many mechanisms at play that lead to heart attacks.  Seemingly healthy active individuals of low weight and with low cholesterol levels will drop dead with no warning.  Consequently, understanding the many facets of heart function is vital to reducing mortality rates.

The Wu Laboratory in the Cardiovascular Institute at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California conducts research to identify mechanisms responsible for human heart diseases. By identifying the genetic regulation of heart formation that occurs during fetal development, Group Director Dr. Sean Wu hopes that newly found information can be translated to understanding the causes of adult heart disease.

While some of the research is conducted using studies of mice hearts, Soah Lee, Ph.D., a Postdoctoral Fellow in the group, is part of a research team that utilizes stem cells to study the process of heart formation.  Soah explains that in the research protocols she takes blood from healthy humans and re-programs the cells into a stem cell.  Since it is from stem cells that specific tissue is generated during fetal development, the cells can be differentiated into heart muscle cells for further study.

However, when cultured the cell morphology changes into a rounded shape and Soah needs to match the rectangular shape of actual heart muscle cells found in the human body.  Consequently, patterning is needed to produce the correct shape.  Stencils made from the organic polymer Kapton allow the cells to conform to the needed likeness and they can be easily designed in design software like Solidworks. 

In-house fabrication expertise was limited, so Soah turned to Potomac to make the high precision stencils.  She notes that “traditional photolithography was too expensive and slow to be viable for the research.  Since Potomac’s manufacturing is based in CAD and digital fabrication processes, I was also able to try a variety of designs quickly and economically.”  Soah created a 17 x 112 micron shape, but also looked at a variety of aspect ratios.

Since a digital fabrication order can be placed for small quantities of multiple designs, a researcher can test various hypothesis and find what works best before ordering higher volumes.  Iterative design is also inherent in Potomac’s rapid prototyping services.  A design can be tested, analyzed and optimized, then re-prototyped to help ensure the best result.  Going beyond traditional rapid prototyping, Potomac’s Proving Ground program is a new design testing service that gives engineers and designers in biotech, medical device, microelectronics, microfluidics, and consumer products companies a first step to try an idea by keeping within certain parameters that reduce set up cost.

Potomac’s use of UV laser processing to cut Kapton is also a key feature for the success of the project.  UV light cuts with almost no thermal damage of organic polymers making the parts very smooth.  Soah reported that she had no problems with the cells being caught on rough surfaces, and no issues with removing the stencil once finished.

Scientists, engineers and researchers want to spend more of their time working on the experiments in their own field, not learning how to fabricate parts.  Soah commented that “Potomac delivered good parts but was also very efficient and the ordering process was easy,” giving her more time for her important work that is opening doors to understanding deadly heart disease.