On-chip flow cytometer using integrated photonics paves the way for high-throughput cell analysis 

Klosterneuburg, 20th May 2024.

Sarcura GmbH, an Austrian early-stage technology start-up and Imec, a world-leading research and innovation hub in nanoelectronics and digital technologies, present their proof-of-concept on-chip flow cytometer using integrated photonics. Published today in Scientific Reports, part of the Nature Publishing Group, this innovation offers a unique platform for the detection and discrimination of human leukocytes and marks a significant stride towards cost-effective, scalable, and highly parallelized cell analysis. 

May 2024 / Company
Daniela Buchmayr

Figure 1: Picture of the on-chip flow cytometer. 

 

Accurate identification of human cells is a key operation in modern medicine, pivotal for understanding disease mechanisms and advancing targeted and personalized 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 characterization of cell populations based on the physical and chemical characteristics of individual cells as they flow past a laser. However, the current implementation involves bulky instrumentation, complex and manual workflows (posing contamination risks), and high operational costs. These challenges hinder widespread availability and adoption of cell therapies in decentralized settings. 

To address these limitations, imec harnesses its expertise in CMOS technology, photonics, and fluidics to automate, miniaturize and parallelize flow cytometry. In a study published in Scientific Reports, imec, together with Sarcura, unveils an on-chip flow cytometer using integrated photonics. Fabricated on imec’s 200mm CMOS pilot line, the opto-fluidic chip features 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 parallelization on a dramatically miniaturized footprint. This breakthrough opens new possibilities for addressing previously unsolved challenges in applications such as cell therapy manufacturing”

Daniela Buchmayr, Co-founder and CEO of Sarcura.

 

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, rivaling the performance of commercial cytometers. The main advantage lies in the potential for dense parallelization of multiple flow channels to boost the system throughput.  

Niels Verellen, Scientific Director at imec

Figure 2: Schematic cross-section of the chip layer stack, indicating light coupling into the chip, cell illumination, and collection and detection of cell scattering signals. (right) Experimental scatter plot of a full peripheral blood mononuclear sample measured with the on-chip flow cytometer. 

In the next phase, the compact, alignment-free design should enable billions of cells to be identified within a limited amount of time. Crucially, the chip architecture seamlessly integrates with Imec’s previously developed bubble jet cell sorting module, compatible with wafer-scale fabrication. Furthermore, the photonic components and layout can be tailored to suit specific applications. This proof-of-concept therefore marks a substantial leap towards cost-effective, scalable, and highly parallelized cell sorting platforms.  

About

About Sarcura 

Sarcura GmbH is an Austrian based early-stage technology company, powering new possibilities in cell therapy manufacturing. While cell therapy has revolutionized cancer treatment, manufacturing patient-derived cell therapies remains a significant challenge for the industry. Issues with quality and scalability result in high therapeutic costs and limited access to life-saving treatments. By utilizing silicon chip technology, Sarcura aims to develop a miniaturized and autonomous cell therapy manufacturing platform. This innovation is expected to increase manufacturing capacity by 100 times and reduce costs by a factor of 10, making advanced cell therapies more accessible and affordable.  

Learn more about Sarcura, please visit: www.sarcura.com 

 

About imec 

Imec is a world-leading research and innovation center in nanoelectronics and digital technologies. Imec leverages its state-of-the-art R&D infrastructure and its team of more than 5,500 employees and top researchers, for R&D in advanced semiconductor and system scaling, silicon photonics, artificial intelligence, beyond 5G communications and sensing technologies, and in application domains such as health and life sciences, mobility, industry 4.0, agrofood, smart cities, sustainable energy, education, … Imec unites world-industry leaders across the semiconductor value chain, Flanders-based and international tech, pharma, medical and ICT companies, start-ups, and academia and knowledge centers. Imec is headquartered in Leuven (Belgium), and has research sites across Belgium, in the Netherlands and the USA, and representation in 3 continents. In 2023, imec’s revenue (P&L) totaled 941 million euro. Further information on imec can be found at www.imec-int.com.