Seeing the immune system in full color

Laser components of a flow cytometer, image shows green and blue laser lights surrounded by black metallic fixtures

A new flow cytometer at the Institute will help researchers study the immune system with unprecedented resolution and speed.

The Flow Cytometry Core at Sanford Burnham Prebys is getting a new piece of state-of-the-art research equipment, thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The $450,000 grant, awarded to Facility Director Yoav Altman, will go toward a new spectral flow cytometer that can create a cell-by-cell inventory of immune cells in blood or other tissue samples.

“As a major core facility, we’re especially thrilled to be awarded this grant,” says Altman. The Flow Core is one of several technology-focused shared resource labs that support Institute researchers by providing access to sophisticated instrumentation and technical expertise. “This new technology will benefit the entire Institute, accelerate research and help jump-start new collaborations between teams.”

Flow cytometry is a fundamental technology for studying cells at the individual level, and it has a wide range of applications, both in the lab and in the clinic. Flow cytometers can analyze complex mixtures of cells, such as blood, to determine which kinds of cells are present and in what amounts. The cells are stained with different-colored dyes and passed in front of multiple laser beams at high speed. The cytometer detects the color of each cell one at a time, capturing about a million cells per minute. 

“If you know what type of cell you’re looking for, flow cytometry can find it like a needle in a haystack,” says Altman.

The new machine has five lasers and can detect more colors than the Institute’s current flow cytometers, which will allow researchers to study many more types of cells from a single sample than current equipment allows. 

“This cytometer provides an unprecedented look at the details of many different types of cells, in a single run, saving time and resources that help researchers to collaborate and share data,” says Altman.

“That’s enough resolution to take a deep dive into the whole immune system with a single measurement,” adds Professor Carl Ware, Ph.D., who will be one of the major users of the new technology. “With this many colors, we can measure connections between components of the immune system in ways not previously possible.”

Ware is an immunologist exploring how to override COVID-19’s ability to evade the immune system. The new cytometer will allow him to examine in detail how immune cells in lung tissue respond to viruses like COVID-19. The machine will also benefit cancer researchers at the Institute, including Professor Peter Adams, Ph.D., who will use it to study the link between aging, immunity and breast cancer.

“Working at this unprecedented level of precision will shed a brand-new light on how aging, the immune system and breast cancer are intertwined,” says Adams. “This technology solves a lot of technical barriers for researchers working at the single-cell level, and it’s a great asset for our Institute.”

In addition to being efficient and cost effective, another important benefit to the new equipment is that it will be easier to operate than the Institute’s current flow cytometers. This will allow researchers to use the new machine independently.

“We’re trying to lower the barriers to access so that more researchers at the Institute can benefit from this important and powerful technique,” says Altman. “Part of what makes Sanford Burnham Prebys special is our commitment to world-class shared resources, and this new equipment is a great addition to that toolbox.”

The title of the grant, issued by the National Institutes of Health is, “Cytek Aurora Full Spectrum Flow Cytometer” (1S10OD032325-01).

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