Sorting cells with sound waves

Acoustic device that separates tumor cells from blood cells could help assess cancer’s spread.

Researchers from MIT, Pennsylvania State University, and Carnegie Mellon University have devised a new way to separate cells by exposing them to sound waves as they flow through a tiny channel. Their device, about the size of a dime, could be used to detect the extremely rare tumor cells that circulate in cancer patients’ blood, helping doctors predict whether a tumor is going to spread.

Separating cells with sound offers a gentler alternative to existing cell-sorting technologies, which require tagging the cells with chemicals or exposing them to stronger mechanical forces that may damage them.

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: Because there is only one pressure node, cells can be pushed aside only short distances.

The new device overcomes that obstacle by tilting the sound waves so they run across the microchannel at an angle — meaning that each cell encounters several pressure nodes as it flows through the channel. Each time it encounters a node, the pressure guides the cell a little further off center, making it easier to capture cells of different sizes by the time they reach the end of the channel.

 

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