Aerospace Technique for Micro-machining Glass Enables Medical Advances

In the mid-1990s, when Dr. Henry Helvajian and his colleagues began experimenting with a photosensitive ceramic-glass compound, they had no idea that it would be the jumping off point for a technology that helps save the lives of patients with terminal diseases. A process developed at Aerospace for space applications found its way into medicine.

The Aerospace-patented technique for manipulating photosensitive glass was later licensed to produce glass slides that hold samples for DNA sequencing. This process has reduced the cost of DNA sequencing.

The ability to sequence an individual’s DNA opens a new realm of potential treatments for disease. For patients with cancer, the procedure allows doctors to more accurately determine which drugs and treatments will be the most effective. For cases that are difficult to diagnose, DNA sequencing can reveal mutations in the body that may be a cause of the diseases.

Why is a little piece of glass important to this process?

Conditions have to be just right for DNA analysis. The glass slides are the critical interface between the optical readout instrument, the sample, and the complex chemistry used to read the genetic information in the sample.

Glass is an ideal structural and chemical material because it is optically transparent, thermally stable, chemically inert, and friendly to biological samples. Until now it has not been possible to mass-produce glass slides with the required tiny channels efficiently and inexpensively. Aerospace’s technology has changed this.

The process invented at Aerospace by Helvajian, Bill Hansen, Lee Steffeney, Dr. Peter Fuqua, and Dr. Frank Livingston allows for the creation of sophisticated shapes within the glass. The team originally developed the process to make miniature propulsion systems for small satellites. Since then, the technique has also been adapted to create tiny antennae for broadband wireless systems.

Getting the technology from Aerospace’s lab into medical labs took about 15 years. The first step was for Aerospace’s team to patent their unique process. Helvajian, Hansen, Steffeney, Livingston, and Fuqua are named on the patent that was eventually licensed. Two additional patents related to the technology were issued in 2004 and 2005.

Mass-producing glass flow cells is just one application of the technology; it has also been used to create ink-jet printer heads and diode spacers. It is currently being tested for use in creating gas and chemical sensors and semiconductor components. These are just a few of the applications for Aerospace technology that will find their way into daily life in the future.

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