Researchers at UCLA have developed a new way to separate and organize cells suspended in fluid samples by their subtle biochemical differences. The system sorts cells more quickly and accurately than current methods, and could lead to a simple, rapid automation of cell analysis, as well as an easier way to separate therapeutic cells from non-therapeutic, or “contaminating,” cells. Cell sorting is widely used in life sciences research and in diagnostic and industrial processing. For example, it is used to isolate progenitor or stem cells from tissues or in vitro cultures; these cells can then be delivered back to a patient to heal injuries or attack tumor cells. The magnetic ratcheting system developed at UCLA can distinguish between subtly different cells so that only the correct, therapeutic cells are used for treatments. “What we think is only one cell type is often a heterogeneous mixture, and without technologies to separate quantitatively, these nuanced differences get lost,” said Dino Di Carlo, Ph.D., the principal investigator on the research and a Professor of Bioengineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. “For example, therapeutically active progenitor cells may look very similar to the other contaminating cells that provide no therapeutic benefit.” Currently, there are two common cell-sorting techniques. One technique is to use fluorescence to find target cells; this requires a large number of cells to complete an analysis because many are damaged or lost during the process. It’s also relatively slow. The other approach uses magnetic tagging and isolation; this method is faster, but typically can provide only a binary “yes” or “no” analysis, identifying only two types of cells.
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