• Professor Rohit Karnik works in the lab with the new method for cell separation that he, Institute Professor Robert Langer and other colleagues have developed. It involves steering rolling cells and could lead to devices for rapidly detecting diseases.

    Professor Rohit Karnik works in the lab with the new method for cell separation that he, Institute Professor Robert Langer and other colleagues have developed. It involves steering rolling cells and could lead to devices for rapidly detecting diseases.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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On a 'roll': MIT researchers devise new cell-sorting system

Professor Rohit Karnik works in the lab with the new method for cell separation that he, Institute Professor Robert Langer and other colleagues have developed. It involves steering rolling cells and could lead to devices for rapidly detecting diseases.

Process could yield low-cost tool for diagnosing cancer, other diseases


Capitalizing on a cell's ability to roll along a surface, MIT researchers have developed a simple, inexpensive system to sort different kinds of cells--a process that could result in low-cost tools to test for diseases such as cancer, even in remote locations.

Rohit Karnik, an MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering and lead author of a paper on the new finding appearing last week in the journal Nano Letters, said the cell-sorting method was minimally invasive and highly innovative.

"It's a new discovery," he said. "Nobody has ever done anything like this before."

The method relies on the way cells sometimes interact with a surface (such as the wall of a blood vessel) by rolling along it. In the new device, a surface is coated with lines of a material that interacts with the cells, making it seem sticky to specific types of cells. The sticky lines are oriented diagonally to the flow of cell-containing fluid passing over the surface, so as certain kinds of cells respond to the coating they are nudged to one side, allowing them to be separated out.

Cancer cells, for example, can be separated from normal cells by this method, which could ultimately lead to a simple device for cancer screening. Stem cells also exhibit the same kind of selective response, so such devices could eventually be used in research labs to concentrate these cells for further study.

Normally, it takes an array of lab equipment and several separate steps to achieve this kind of separation of cells. This can make such methods impractical for widespread screening of blood samples in the field, especially in remote areas. "Our system is tailor-made for analysis of blood," Karnik said. In addition, some kinds of cells, including stem cells, are very sensitive to external conditions, so this system could allow them to be concentrated with much less damage than with conventional multistage lab techniques.

"If you're out in the field and you want to diagnose something, you don't want to have to do several steps," Karnik said. With the new system, "you can sort cells in a very simple way, without processing."

Now that the basic principle has been harnessed in the lab, Karnik estimates it may take up to two years to develop into a standard device that could be used for laboratory research purposes. Because of the need for extensive testing, development of a device for clinical use could take between five and 10 years, he estimated.

The work was a collaboration between Karnik and six other researchers: MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer, Jeffrey Karp of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Seungpyo Hong, Ying Mei and Huanan Zhang of MIT's Department of Chemical Engineering, and Daniel Anderson of the Koch Institute at MIT.

The work was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 12, 2008 (download PDF).


Topics: Bioengineering and biotechnology, Cancer, Health sciences and technology, Mechanical engineering

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