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Gina Cody School researchers make improvements to technology to accelerate genetic engineering studies

Findings by professor Steve Shih and his team could allow scientists to create genetically altered cells in a matter of hours
November 9, 2020
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Kenza Samlali and her colleagues have created a device capable of identifying and trapping a genetically engineered cell into microdroplets.

Creating genetically engineered cells - tools used to study disease - is lengthy and complicated, a process that could now take days instead of months thanks to new technology developed by researchers at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science at Concordia University.

Over the last few years, the advent of gene editing technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 has provided scientists with tools to easily alter a cell’s genes and study their function in human health or diseases such as cancer.

Though these molecular scissors allow researchers to easily cut out a gene from a cell’s DNA, finding and isolating altered cells remains lengthy and tedious, costing precious time and energy to researchers before their real work begins. Thanks to new technology developed by Steve Shih, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, this procedure could now take a matter of hours.

In a new study published in Small, Shih, who is also a researcher with the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology, describes a new microfluidic device used to isolate and enrich correctly edited cells.

Young smiling woman with long dark hair, wearing glasses and a white T-shirt. Kenza Samlali: “Microfluidic technologies, also known as lab-on-a-chip, manipulate fluids on a micro scale.”

Kenza Samlali, a fourth-year PhD student working with Shih, says that scientists have been using microfluidic technology for a number of years to enable miniaturisation and multiplexing experiments, especially carrying out manipulations at the single cell level.

“Microfluidic technologies, also known as lab-on-a-chip, manipulate fluids on a micro scale,” says Samlali, first author on the new paper. “We used this tool to show that it is possible to automate the process for making an engineered cancer cell.”

Samlali and her colleagues combined two existing technologies to create a ‘hybrid’ device capable of identifying and trapping a genetically engineered cell into microdroplets. An electric field generated by electrodes found on the device surface is then used to move the microdroplets through tunnels to isolate and enrich cells that were properly edited.

“Usually, we need to rely on large, expensive automated equipment to sort them out and find the ones we need,” she adds. “This can take months, damages the cells, and many precious and edited cells get lost. We believe our tool is a useful technology that can prevent such losses and can be integrated with current laboratory automation tools while saving researchers valuable time.”

Young smiling man wearing jeans and a checked shirt, sitting in a lab with various wires and machines. Steve Shih, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Shih believes their work is the first step towards a ‘next-gen’ approach for quickly recovering edited cells.

“Microfluidics is highly amenable to automation and we believe that with further development we can create ‘gene-editing in a box’ that can be controlled by user-friendly software.”

Their study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de recherche Nature et technologies, and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

Read the study One Cell, One Drop, One Click: Hybrid Microfluidics for Mammalian Single Cell Isolation, published in Small.  And the previous study An automated microfluidic gene-editing platform for deciphering cancer genes in Lab on Chip.



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