Single cell level sorting technology uses sound waves

A research team from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), led by Assistant Professor Dr Ye Ai, is studying the interactions between ultrasound (beyond the audible limit of human hearing) and micron-sized objects (e.g. biological cells) suspended in aqueous solutions. Dr Ai's research team recently developed a highly accurate single cell level sorting technology using a highly focused sound wave beam (50 μm wide, roughly ¼ of a single human hair's diameter). This new cell manipulation technology enables highly accurate isolation of rare cell populations in complex biological samples. More concisely, it provides the potential of finding a single cell in a million.

Single cell analysis, for example the ability to examine DNA mutations at single cell level, is essential for assessing the genetic heterogeneity of cancers among different patients, and thus holds great potential of advancing towards precision medicine for cancer treatment. The key to implementing single cell analysis is the ability to isolate single cells from highly heterogeneous biological samples. According to a recent market analysis conducted by Markets and Markets Research Pte Ltd, the global market size of cell sorting is USD 3.57 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach USD 7.89 billion by 2021 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17.2%. Asia is expected to be the fastest-growing market in the next five years owing to increasing government investments in biotechnology and the healthcare sector.

Currently, sorting and isolation of rare cell populations is typically performed using fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) system, a technology developed nearly 60 years ago. However, current FACS systems are complex, bulky, and expensive, requiring highly trained personnel for operation, and may produce bio-hazardous aerosols in open environments. Microfluidics technology capable of precise cell manipulation has great potential to reinvent the next-generation cell sorting technology.

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