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Imec and Sarcura introduce scalable on-chip cell detection

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The organisations say that this proof of concept, which uses integrated photonics and is fabricated on imec’s 200 mm CMOS pilot line, paves the way for high-throughput cell analysis

The Belgian research institute imec and Austrian technology startup Sarcura have presented their proof-of-concept on-chip flow cytometer using integrated photonics. Published in Scientific Reports, part of the Nature Publishing Group, the organisations say this innovation offers a unique platform for the detection and discrimination of human leukocytes (white blood cells) and marks a significant stride towards cost-effective, scalable, and highly parallelised cell analysis.

Accurate identification of human cells is a key operation in modern medicine, pivotal for understanding disease mechanisms and advancing targeted and personalised treatments. With the advent of cell manufacturing, living cells can now be engineered to function as treatments, notably in groundbreaking therapies like CAR-T immune cell therapy for cancer. The ability to identify these therapeutic cells in complex cell products at high throughput is crucial, and often time sensitive.

The method of choice today is flow cytometry, which enables characterisation of cell populations based on the physical and chemical characteristics of individual cells as they flow past a laser. However, the current implementation includes bulky instrumentation, complex and manual workflows (posing contamination risks), and high operational costs. These challenges hinder widespread availability and adoption of cell therapies in decentralised settings.

To address these limitations, imec is harnessing its expertise in CMOS technology, photonics, and fluidics with the aim of automating, miniaturising and parallelising flow cytometry. In a study published in Scientific Reports, imec, together with Sarcura, has unveiled an on-chip flow cytometer using integrated photonics. Fabricated on imec’s 200 mm CMOS pilot line, the organisations describe the opto-fluidic chip as featuring a pioneering material stack facilitating both cell illumination and capturing of scattered light through waveguide optics, and precise cell delivery to the detection points using microfluidic channels.

“Silicon photonics, as successfully demonstrated in this novel photonic chip, is the revolutionary and essential building block that merges single-cell detection capabilities with massive parallelisation on a dramatically miniaturised footprint,” said Daniela Buchmayr, CEO and cofounder of Sarcura. “This breakthrough opens new possibilities for addressing previously unsolved challenges in applications such as cell therapy manufacturing.”

Niels Verellen, scientific director at imec, added: “We have demonstrated, for the first time, that a monolithically integrated biophotonic chip can be used to collect optical scattering signals that allow the discrimination of lymphocytes and monocytes from a patient’s blood sample, rivalling the performance of commercial cytometers. The main advantage lies in the potential for dense parallelisation of multiple flow channels to boost the system throughput.”

In a next phase, imec and Sarcura say the compact, alignment-free design should enable billions of cells to be identified within a limited amount of time.

Crucially, according to the organisations, the chip architecture seamlessly integrates with imec’s previously developed bubble jet cell sorting module, compatible with wafer-scale fabrication, and the photonic components and layout can be tailored to suit specific applications. Therefore, they add, this proof-of-concept marks a substantial leap towards cost-effective, scalable, and highly parallelised cell sorting platforms.

Image credit: imec

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