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The Character and Quality of Magnetic Bead Cell Separation Processes

Cell separation improves understanding of cell function, generating discoveries for improved medical practice and research. Yet, experimental procedures for removing cells from their natural environment can adversely affect their function and expressed physical traits – morphology, or biochemical/physiological properties. Thus, separation processes appropriate to the biomedical or related task at hand are required to assure optimum process efficacy. Magnetic bead cell separation efficiently utilizes the principle of the attractive power of magnetic force on selected particles in liquid solution.

Free PDF guide:  "Basic guide to Magnetic Bead Cell Separation"

Tube-based magnetic cell separation not only isolates the cells selected for study or use, but also easily removes unwanted cellular-types from the sample, resulting in higher yields of pure, functionally viable cells. Capturing specific cells from a larger population of mixed cell-types stimulates a broadened range of both research exploration and medical diagnoses.  

In all cases, it is imperative to determine the desired outcomes of the isolation/separation processes, and their assessment. That is, determining the appropriate measurement of purity, recovery and viability is an overriding factor of process efficiency. Since magnetic bead separation typically provides the highest quality of these factors, its application can be further improved by identifying the specific properties of targeted cells. Certain procedures need to be enacted to further specify cell separation objectives.

Dividing and Categorizing Cells in Terms of Their Specific Properties

Cell isolation and preparation are fundamental requirements of cell separation. Successful implementation can yield highly enriched cell suspensions, but proceed best when appropriate categorization of targeted cells is enacted, according to their specific properties.

This article is about the process of magnetic bead cell sorting. If you are interested in knowing more about this process, download our free basic guide to the process:

Intracellular Properties: Magnetic bead cell sorting is most effective when a single (one) separation criterion or characteristic is the basis for separation. Of importance is categorizing cells according to their fundamental intracellular properties, in the form of macromolecules: DNA, RNA and proteins.  

  • DNA: DNA-categorization is important because, on its own, it cannot catalyze biological reactions, and thus is applicable to specialized research purposes. DNA is double-stranded, with a double-helix structure and its own internal repair systems, which also affects its uses.

  • RNA: Single-stranded with a highly complex structure, RNA has no internal repair capabilities. SA-coupling procedures are used frequently for isolation purposes for both RNA/DNA sequencing and binding.  

  • Protein molecule interactivity: Unlike DNA and RNA, proteins cannot encode genetic information and use amino acid rather than nucleotides for building-blocs.  However, like RNA, proteins catalyze biological reactions. Like RNA, proteins are single-stranded with a highly complex structure; they also lack internal repair capabilities.

Categorization and division of cells according to their unique properties is necessary to focus cell separation applications. Each of the macromolecules – DNA, RNA and proteins – are sufficiently specialized in form and function to require accurate recognition and individualized processing.  

Extracellular Properties:  Features such as cell shape (morphology), size and surface protein expression impact the processes needed to effect cell separation.  

  • Morphology: Folds, ruffles and microvilli occurring in the cell membrane may impact the efficiency of microbead applications. Cell surface morphology influences the cell’s capacity to hold a magnetic charge, and thus responds to magnetic bead separation technology.  

  • Size: Just as larger microbeads are generally more efficient than nanobeads for most cell separation processes, larger-sized cells typically hold a magnetic charge better than smaller.   

  • Surface protein expression: Within any single cell, protein distribution is predicted by its surface protein expression, which also reflects the quantity of RNA within the cell.

As with intracellular characteristics, categorizing cells according to their extracellular factors provides instructive guidelines for selecting the precise magnetic bead technologies appropriate to a particular cell separation process.

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FREE Download: Basic guide to magnetic bead cell separation

Lluis M. Martínez | SEPMAG Chief Scientific Officer

Founder of SEPMAG, Lluis holds a PhD in Magnetic Materials by the UAB. He has conducted research at German and Spanish academic institutions. Having worked in companies in Ireland, USA and Spain, he has more than 20 years of experience applying magnetic materials and sensors to industrial products and processes. He has filed several international patents on the field and co-authored more than 20 scientific papers, most of them on the subject of magnetic particle movement.

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