Jan 20, 2022
Breakthrough technology unlocks new frontiers in scientific discovery

Imagine you need to find a friend inside a crowded stadium, but you don’t have their exact location or a way to contact them. Examining every seat, restroom and food vendor would take hours or maybe days. What if there was a way to sort every single person at that stadium based on their visual traits (e.g., male, brown hair, glasses, beard), so that you could separate out those who do not fit that person’s description into one area and all that do into another area? Then the technology could pull up a high-resolution photo of each person identified as having similar traits, so that you could visually confirm the right person and their location. And you could perform this scan at a rate of 15,000 people per second — or in other words, you could find one person in a stadium of 100,000-plus in under 10 seconds.

For immunologists or functional genomics researchers looking to develop better cancer treatments or personalized medicine—who may often be looking for a needle-in-the-haystack type of rare cell among billions of cells—a new BD technology featured on the Jan. 21, 2022 cover of Science unlocks the potential to do what was previously impossible. In the newly published study, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and BD demonstrated that this technology identifies at high speeds, not only if and how much of a biomarker is present in a cell, but also a biomarker’s location and other detailed information that could help scientists answer complex biological questions faster.

Why this novel technology represents a landmark advancement for the flow cytometry and cell sorter instruments these scientists rely on

The new technology has the potential to transform immunology, cell biology and genomics research and enable new cell-based therapeutic discovery. Until now, the flow cytometry instruments that researchers relied on to analyze and sort cells enabled them to characterize a large volume of cells for a limited number of traits at a time. For example, current technology allows a researcher to use a dye to make a biomarker on or in the cell that they want to study, such as a protein, fluoresce in a bright color relative to its abundance on or in the individual cells. The lasers that excite the dyes and the corresponding fluorescence emitted enables researcher to know whether the protein is present or not and how many cells had it. However, that was as specific as we had been able to get on this type of high-throughput instrumentation. Researchers seeking more detailed information about specific cells would need to look at individual cells under a microscope to manually identify each one, which is time consuming and is limited by your ability to sort each cell by visual inspection alone.

This breakthrough technology, in essence, marries the high throughput of a flow cytometer with the imaging capability of microscopy followed by cell sorting. By integrating cell imaging and image-based decisioning to sort cells at exceptionally high speeds, it’s now possible to identify, characterize and sort millions of cells in minutes, not hours (or days), based on the visual details of each cell and not solely on the type or quantity of biomarkers that are present. If you could apply this technology to the “find a friend” example, we would be able to sort the entire world’s population of 7.8 billion people in a few days—to learn exactly where on the planet that person was and confirm it was them with an image. The potential this technology has for accelerating research timelines unlocks new dimensions in research and opens the possibility of discovering life-saving drugs and other therapies to patients faster.

Building upon multidisciplinary technologies to create a breakthrough

This technology represents the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of work from a multidisciplinary team of optical, mechanical, electrical, biomedical and software engineers and scientists that aimed to provide researchers a differentiated and flexible capability for analyzing single cells. Taking inspiration from beyond the healthcare space, the R&D team leveraged cutting-edge methodologies from tech-forward fields, such as wireless telecommunications, to create state-of-the art capabilities.

By automating some of the traditionally manual aspects of precision identification, the R&D team from our Biosciences business created a technology that pushes the limits of speed and precision in flow cytometry. The technology can analyze more than 1,000 times the amount of data compared to traditional flow cytometry methods. Named BD CellView™ Image Technology, this technique can capture multiple images of individual cells flowing through the system at speeds up to 15,000 cells per second and also adds a previously impossible capability of sorting cells based on detailed image analysis of individual cells at this speed.

Unlocking new frontiers from research to advancing precision medicine

By enabling scientists to more rapidly view and isolate cells with specific, observable traits of interest, this technology can accelerate discovery research and unlock potential therapies or cures for disease in a broad range of fields, such as virology and oncology—and we’ve just scratched the surface of the types of analyses that are possible. The incredible precision and ease of use for the technology opens new possibilities for researchers in a variety of fields from HIV therapeutics to plant biology. While the full potential for this technology is still unknown, it could transform what’s possible in a wide range of disciplines from immunology to genomics research to cell-based therapeutics and beyond.

BD has been a pioneer in the space since the 1970s, when it became the first company to commercialize flow cytometry technology. Since then, we’ve continued building upon that unparalleled expertise and capabilities leadership, continuing to attract the best and brightest in the field to our R&D team, where they can leverage the breadth and depth of resources BD provides. This team has successfully advanced flow cytometry technology to fill a long-standing gap in research where no other company has. We look forward to working with the scientific community at-large to help them leverage it and advance both research and therapeutic discovery, ultimately advancing the world of health™.

Learn more about the study from EMBL and BD that was published in Science.


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