/Expertise/Health technologies/Flow cytometry and cell sorting

Flow cytometry and cell sorting

Sorting 20 million cells per minute, imec’s on-chip cytometry and cell sorting technology is a key component of next-gen diagnostics, therapeutics and bioprocessing.

Flow cytometry is a versatile technology for identification and separation of cell species, and even individual cells, from fluid samples such as blood. Especially when combined with a cell sorting module for further downstream analysis, it’s a powerful tool for applications such as diagnostics and bioprocess monitoring and control.

Conventional cytometric technologies – often based on glass or plastic substrates and frequently found as benchtop systems in research labs – fail to meet the standards for clinical practice.

  • They are complex to operate and lack automation.
  • They allow risks for contamination and carry-over of samples.
  • They take a lot of time to get from sample to result.

In order to make life-saving treatments such as CAR T cell therapies widely available and affordable, we need cytometry and cell sorting solutions that are closed and compact, easy to use, high-throughput, and low-cost.

Read the article: cytometry chip supports new revolution in cancer care

Bringing flow cytometry on a chip

Chip technology, in particular silicon microfluidics, is excellently suited to tackle these challenges. Because of its compactness and scalability, it allows a substantial parallelization of the channels – increasing the throughput without making concessions on sorting precision, or viability of the cells.

In addition, on-chip flow cytometry allows the development of integrated solutions that combine microfluidics, photonics, MEMS, imaging, computation, ... in one closed and compact system. Such a system can be used in decentralized settings and is explicitly recommended by the FDA and other guidelines to improve therapies administered to patients.

flow cytometry

Imec’s cell sorter chips on a wafer

Imec’s flow cytometer and cell sorter

Imec developed a flow cytometry and cell sorter concept that can select cells based on multiple markers, and then further analyze them downstream. This is the operating principle:

  • A sample from a liquid biopsy – with fluorescent beads attached to the cells – is loaded into the microfluidic channel that’s about 30µ (roughly 1 cell) wide.
  • Conditioned light illuminates the cells, resulting in fringe patterns registered by a CMOS image sensor.
  • Because cell types have different optical signatures, the fringe patterns make it possible to distinguish them – thanks to rapid calculations by an ASIC.
  • Microheaters generate steam bubbles that push particular cells to a designated outlet.
  • Downstream, these cells can be analyzed further, using techniques such as PCR-on-chip and lens-free imaging.

Thanks to the parallelization in up to 100 of these channels, sorting speeds reach 20 million cells per minute, all with a disposable device of only a few cm².

A few key benefits of imec’s cytometry and cell sorter device:

  • It’s a compact and closed system that can be inexpensively mass-produced. This makes it ideal for point-of-care applications.
  • It’s robust thanks to the absence of mechanically moving parts.
  • It allows multi-marker selection.

Work with us

The building blocks of imec’s flow cytometry and cell sorting solution have been internally validated for integration in systems for next-gen diagnostics and bioprocess monitoring and control, and are available for licensing.