Microfluidic cell sorting or the art of cell separation

Learn more about microfluidic cell sorting, a technique aimed at sorting and separating cells, and better understanding cellular response.

Cell sorting or how to individualize cells

Microfluidic cell sorting is a technique used to sort and separate cells using microfluidic devices. These exploit the properties of fluids on a very small scale to manipulate cells with delicacy, speed and high precision. These are the main advantages of microfluidic cell sorting over more traditional sorting methods such as flow cytometry or magnetic cell sorting.

Cell sorting

And the benefits don’t stop there. We could also mention the low consumption of reagents and the potential for lab-on-a-chip integration, all opportunities brought by microfluidics. Like keys that could open many doors, especially in the fields of cell biology and pharmacology.

Different approaches to cell separation

Depending on the physical or biological characteristics of the cells, different microfluidic cell sorting approaches can be used, for example:

Microfluidic cell sorting applications

Meeting the challenges of cell biology

Being able to sort cells means being able to treat them individually, but also in parallel with other cells, within a given biological environment.

But this simple premise has long been a headache for research teams. Indeed, cell behavior varies widely, even within the same strain. This heterogeneity could be explained by a number of factors, most of which are still poorly understood. However, we would first suspect the influence of a cell cycle and the interactions between cells.

In addition to counteracting this variability, microfluidic cell sorting offers a more accurate perspective of cellular response to the action of new drugs. Research laboratories are increasingly working on a complementary analysis between screening and cell sorting. Upstream, cellular screening is used to identify molecules with interesting activity in specific cells. Downstream, microfluidic cell sorting isolates these cells. As a result, the study of their behavior in response to therapeutic molecules becomes more targeted… and faster! And when you consider how much it costs to develop a new drug (hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars), we can only hope to shorten testing times. By targeting specific cells, we can produce a drug that performs better, faster and at a fraction of the cost.

What pathologies can microfluidic cell sorting help treat?

Microfluidic cell sorting has the versatility and capacity to contribute to the understanding and treatment of a wide range of pathologies. Two qualities particularly appreciated in biomedical research. Cancer and sepsis are among the diseases most highlighted by selective analysis, but more broadly, it has shown potential applications for treatment:

  • Neurological diseases (Huntington’s disease in particular);
  • Cardiovascular disease (myocardial infarction and other cardiac pathologies);
  • Autoimmune diseases;
  • Genetic diseases.

Despite the essential advances it enables, microfluidic cell sorting still suffers from certain limitations. Among them, the low sample throughput used (which can impair its use in processing large volumes of cells), cell death, and limited quantification capacity (which can make precise measurement of cell subpopulations difficult) are often cited.

Nevertheless, like the microfluidics on which it depends, this technique enjoys a great deal of support and interest from the research community, which sees in it more answers than barriers to solving many medical problems.


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