Penn State researchers have developed a new lab-on-a-chip cell sorting device based on acoustic waves that is capable of the kind of high sorting throughput necessary to compete with commercial fluorescence activated cell sorters, described in the cover story in the current issue of the British journal Lab on a Chip. Commercial fluorescence activated cell sorters have been highly successful in the past 40 years at rapidly and accurately aiding medical diagnosis and biological studies, but they are bulky and too expensive ($200,000 -$1,000,000) for many labs or doctors’ offices. “The current benchtop cell sorters are too expensive, too unsafe, and too high-maintenance. More importantly, they have very low biocompatibility. The cell-sorting process can reduce cell viability and functions by 30–99 percent for many fragile or sensitive cells such as neurons, stem cells, liver cells and sperm cells,” said Tony Jun Huang, Penn State professor of engineering science and mechanics and the paper’s corresponding author. “We are developing an acoustic cell sorter that has the potential to address all these problems.”
Microfluidic cell sorters are a promising new tool for single cell sequencing, rare cell isolation, and drug screening. However, many of them operate at only a few hundred cells per second, far too slow to compete with commercial devices that operate on the order of tens of thousands of operations per second. The Penn State system can sort about 3,000 cells per second, with the potential to sort more than 13,000 cells per second. The speed is generated by using focused transducers to create standing surface acoustic waves (SSAWs).