"Acoustic pressure is very mild and much smaller in terms of forces and disturbance to the cell. This is a most gentle way to separate cells, and there's no artificial labeling necessary."
The researchers have filed for a patent on the device, the technology of which they have demonstrated can be used to separate rare circulating cancer cells from white blood cells.
To sort cells using sound waves, scientists have previously built microfluidic devices with two acoustic transducers, which produce sound waves on either side of a microchannel. When the two waves meet, they combine to form a standing wave (a wave that remains in constant position). This wave produces a pressure node, or line of low pressure, running parallel to the direction of cell flow. Cells that encounter this node are pushed to the side of the channel; the distance of cell movement depends on their size and other properties such as compressibility.
However, these existing devices are inefficient:
This new device tilts sound waves so they run across the micro channel at an angle, this causes each cell to encounter several pressure nodes along the way. The new method makes it easier to capture cells of different sizes as they reach the end of the channel.
The team tested how well the device was able to separate MCF-7 breast cancer cells (20 microns diameter) from white blood cells (12 microns in diameter). The cells also differ by compressibility and density.
The results showed the cell sorter recovered around 71% of the cancer cells.
The team now plans to test the device with blood samples from cancer patients in clinical settings. Circulating tumor cells are very rare - one milliliter of a typical cancer patient's blood may only contain a few tumor cells.
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