One thing I love about my job is I get to see a lot of fascinating products and technologies. When I first visited Axion BioSystems I was intrigued by their technology and the possible medical and research applications. I was thrilled when Rob Grier, Design Manager at Axion, agreed to share their story.
DANNY: Rob, Tell me about Axion BioSystems
ROB: Axion BioSystems is a small life science instrumentation company based in Atlanta, Georgia. Historically, the evaluation of electrically active cells has been tedious, requiring months of training to study single cells at low throughput. Using Axion’s technology, any scientist can now quickly and easily measure electrical network behavior from heart or nerve cells in a dish.
Axion makes end-to-end systems for electrophysiology research at universities, research organizations, and pharmaceutical companies. We offer the consumable microelectrode array culture plates, the system to acquire data, and the software to analyze and post-process the data. Axion was founded in 2008 based on market needs observed by CTO Jim Ross for a multi-well version of existing technologies. This allows customers to perform up to 96 experiments in the same time they were previously able to perform just one.
DANNY: What is microelectrode array technology?
ROB: Microelectrode array (MEA) technology is the underlying platform of our consumable product, MEA microplates. In the cell culture world, multi-well microplates (6, 12, 24, 48, 96 or more wells per plate) are used to maintain multiple live cultures in one carrier. This provides the opportunity to subject the cell cultures to many different experiments while maintaining the same underlying properties such as environment and feeding cycle.
MEA technology comes into play when these cell cultures are emitting electrical signals – cells such as neurons or heart cells. In Axion MEA plates, each well has between 8 and 64 electrodes that interface with these electroactive cells to acquire their signals. For example, cardiac cells emit signals similar to an electrocardiogram (ECG) signal one might see in a hospital.
Each electrode is between 30 and 80 microns in diameter, depending on the application. Varying the size of the electrode plays a large role in the signal-to-noise ratio. Axion employs technologies used in the microelectronics field as well as those used in MEMS applications to create cell culture MEA microplates for our customers.
Here’s a link with an overview of our technology.
DANNY: How does MEA work in conjunction with Optogenetics?
ROB: MEA recordings allow non-invasive, long-term, detailed monitoring of activity from cultures of networked cells. Passively monitoring this network activity allows researchers to better understand the inner workings of both healthy and diseased tissue. This is very useful in the field of electrophysiology, but there are instances where the scientist may want more control over the cell culture.
Optogenetic stimulation allows scientists advanced control of the cell cultures by stimulating using specific wavelengths of light. For example, beating cardiac cells can be optically paced to specific beat rates to explore how drugs might affect the heart during exercise. As another example, typical brain tissue is composed of many different types of neurons that each play a different role in network activity. With optogenetics, different wavelengths of light can be used to turn on or off each cell type while activity is being monitored by the MEA.
This enhanced control allows researchers to “tease apart” the inner workings of brain networks, which provides greater understanding of how to treat neural diseases, such as epilepsy, ALS, or Parkinson’s disease.
DANNY: Tell us about your new products, Maestro Pro and Maestro Edge
ROB: Maestro Pro and Maestro Edge, launched in 2017, are successors to the original Maestro system. The Maestro Pro and Edge are built around the same core technology with Design-for-Manufacturing at the forefront of the product requirements. The new Maestro systems use Axion’s newest ASIC, the BioCore v4, to enhance signal-to-noise ratios and invoke new signals after microvolt-scale stimulations to the cell cultures.
The Maestro systems also make electrophysiology experiments more accessible and error-proof by streamlining the recording process. Manual accessories in the first generation are now integrated as automatically enabled gas and temperature control, faraday cage protection of microvolt signals, barcode-based tracing and file-naming, and internal data storage and backup. Maestro Pro (768-channel) and Edge (384-channel) expand the original Maestro’s market by offering powerful data-acquisition technology without requiring an engineering background.
DANNY: What Samtec connectors did you select and why?
ROB: For the Maestro Pro and Edge, there were two main criteria that Samtec connectors were able to satisfy. First, both systems require high pin counts – the Maestro Pro with 768 channels and the Maestro Edge with 384 channels. The availability of a low stack-height board to board connector in the SEARAY™ family led us to use the SEAM and SEAF connectors in multiple areas as well as the SEAC cable assembly.
Second, with the goal of a streamlined manufacturing process, we needed a solution for easy to access cables to connect and disconnect subassemblies. The MRTD series of connectors is flexible enough to fit many different applications and the panel mount version helped us build a platform with a series of parts that are easy to replace in the field.
These technical elements were important in our development process, but at the end of the day what actually mattered in the design phase was the availability of parts and the resources available to customize each piece. The Samtec website was extremely helpful in both PCB and mechanical CAD design. The ability to customize a part and have it in-house within a few days allowed us to launch these new products on time. Samtec’s customer service and response time are what really drove us to select Samtec connectors for our new product line.