Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Scientists enlist tiny biomagnets for faster drug discovery


A new platform brings together genome editing with magnetic cell sorting to reveal new drug targets for cancer and regenerative medicine

What started as a hallway conversation between colleagues is now an "engine for the discovery of new therapeutic targets in cells" thanks to Medicine by Design, says Shana Kelley, a University Professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto.

A new microfluidics device developed at U of T is capable of sorting one billion cells per hour based on their molecular makeup, vastly accelerating the discovery of new drug targets in cells (Photo courtesy of the Kelley lab).

Courtesy of the Kelley lab at U of T.

Kelley's lab was developing a portable, chip-like device that uses tiny magnets to sort large populations of mixed cell types as part of her Medicine by Design team project.

She wondered if the device could be coupled with a CRISPR-based gene-editing technology, developed by another Medicine by Design team leader, Jason Moffat, a professor in the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research.

They reasoned that the two methods together could speed up combing through the human genome for potential drug targets. "We casually agreed to combine our technologies -- and it worked incredibly well," says Kelley.

"This is the advantage of being part of the dynamic research ecosystem of Toronto and Medicine by Design," says Kelley. "I would have never known how to position this technology and link it with CRISPR it if I did not have all these great people around to talk to."

The result of their joint effort, also in collaboration with Stephane Angers, a professor at Pharmacy, and Edward Sargent, University Professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is called MICS, for microfluidic cell sorting, described in a study published today in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

MICS will enable researchers to scour the human genome faster when searching for genes, and their protein products, that can be targeted by drugs.

In one hour, MICS can collect precious rare cells, in which CRISPR revealed promising drug targets, from a large and mixed cell population of The same experiment would take 20-30 hours using the gold standard method of fluorescence-based sorting.

Researchers use CRISPR to switch off in cells each of around 20,000 human genes and see how this affects levels of a disease-related protein which, say, helps cancer spread. This can reveal other gene candidates, and the proteins they encode, that work in the same pathway and which could be targeted with drugs to remove the target protein and halt cancer.

The caveat is that genetic screens result in mixed cell populations, with a desired effect present in a vanishingly small proportion of cells which have to be scooped out for further study. Most cell-sorting instruments use laser beams to separate fluorescently labelled cells, but this takes time.

MICS works faster thanks to tiny magnets engineered to bind to the target protein, which leaves the cells sprinkled with magnetic particles. About half the size of a credit card, its surface is streaked with strips of magnetic material that ferry the cells from one end of the device to another. Once at the far end, the cells fall into distinct collection channels based on how many particles they carry as a proxy for the amount of the target protein.

"As many as one billion cells can travel down this highway of magnetic guides at once and we can process that in one hour," says Kelley." It's a huge gamechanger for CRISPR screens."

To test if MICS can reveal new drug targets, the researchers focused on cancer immunotherapy, in which the immune system is engineered to destroy tumour cells. They looked for a way to reduce the levels of the CD47 protein which sends a "don't eat me" signal to the immune system and is often hijacked by cancer cells as a way of escaping immune detection. Others have found that blocking CD47 directly has harmful side effects, prompting the Medicine by Design team to look for the genes that regulate CD47 protein levels.

A genome-wide CRISPR screen revealed a gene called QPCTL which codes for an enzyme that helps camouflage CD47 from the immune system and that could be blocked with an off-the-shelf drug.

"If you can modulate CD47 levels by acting on QPCTL , that could be an interesting way to trick the immune system to clear cancer" says Moffat.

It's early days yet, but Kelley and Moffat are hopeful about QPCTL's therapeutic potential in cancer, perhaps as a way to get macrophages to target tumor cells. They are also launching a multi-lab collaboration PEGASUS project, for Phenotypic Genomic Screening at Scale, which will scale up the technology to interrogate a broad range of therapeutic targets.

On the regenerative medicine front, MICS will help reveal the genes that activate stem cells to turn into specialized cell types, which will make easier harvesting of desired cell types for therapy.

Although Kelley's team initially developed magnetic cell sorting for isolating tumour cells from the blood, its repurposing for drug target discovery could have a wider impact, with MICS already attracting significant interest from the research community and industry.

Media Contact

Jovana Drinjakovic


Jovana Drinjakovic | EurekAlert!

Further reports about: CRISPR cell types drug discovery genes human genome immune system tiny magnets tumour cells

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht 'Flamenco dancing' molecule could lead to better-protecting sunscreen
18.10.2019 | University of Warwick

nachricht Synthetic cells make long-distance calls
17.10.2019 | Rice University

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Solving the mystery of quantum light in thin layers

A very special kind of light is emitted by tungsten diselenide layers. The reason for this has been unclear. Now an explanation has been found at TU Wien (Vienna)

It is an exotic phenomenon that nobody was able to explain for years: when energy is supplied to a thin layer of the material tungsten diselenide, it begins to...

Im Focus: An ultrafast glimpse of the photochemistry of the atmosphere

Researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have explored the initial consequences of the interaction of light with molecules on the surface of nanoscopic aerosols.

The nanocosmos is constantly in motion. All natural processes are ultimately determined by the interplay between radiation and matter. Light strikes particles...

Im Focus: Shaping nanoparticles for improved quantum information technology

Particles that are mere nanometers in size are at the forefront of scientific research today. They come in many different shapes: rods, spheres, cubes, vesicles, S-shaped worms and even donut-like rings. What makes them worthy of scientific study is that, being so tiny, they exhibit quantum mechanical properties not possible with larger objects.

Researchers at the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE's Argonne National...

Im Focus: Novel Material for Shipbuilding

A new research project at the TH Mittelhessen focusses on the development of a novel light weight design concept for leisure boats and yachts. Professor Stephan Marzi from the THM Institute of Mechanics and Materials collaborates with Krake Catamarane, which is a shipyard located in Apolda, Thuringia.

The project is set up in an international cooperation with Professor Anders Biel from Karlstad University in Sweden and the Swedish company Lamera from...

Im Focus: Controlling superconducting regions within an exotic metal

Superconductivity has fascinated scientists for many years since it offers the potential to revolutionize current technologies. Materials only become superconductors - meaning that electrons can travel in them with no resistance - at very low temperatures. These days, this unique zero resistance superconductivity is commonly found in a number of technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Future technologies, however, will harness the total synchrony of electronic behavior in superconductors - a property called the phase. There is currently a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

International Symposium on Functional Materials for Electrolysis, Fuel Cells and Metal-Air Batteries

02.10.2019 | Event News

NEXUS 2020: Relationships Between Architecture and Mathematics

02.10.2019 | Event News

Optical Technologies: International Symposium „Future Optics“ in Hannover

19.09.2019 | Event News

Latest News

Energy Flow in the Nano Range

18.10.2019 | Power and Electrical Engineering

MR-compatible Ultrasound System for the Therapeutic Application of Ultrasound

18.10.2019 | Medical Engineering

Double layer of graphene helps to control spin currents

18.10.2019 | Physics and Astronomy

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>