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Importance of Cell Isolation

Cells are the fundamental components of organisms, and carry genes which determine the biological function of each particular cell. The human body is composed of about 200 different types of cells (e.g. red blood cells, white blood cells, muscle cells, bone cells, nerve cells, etc.). Although all cells start off in a similar naive state, gene and protein expression will dictate how these cells differentiate into various mature cell types. Understanding the proteomics, genomics, and other sciences behind cellular differentiation will help researchers link cellular mechanisms to physiological responses. Similarly, understanding cellular pathways and response will help provide a deeper understanding of disease pathogenicity.

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

Cell isolation studies are therefore critical from both a physiological and pathological perspective, where different cell types can be studied to identify unique associated pathologies and disorders.  For example, dysfunction of endothelial cells that play a major role in the circulatory system may lead to vascular diseases, while pancreatic β-cells play a major role in insulin resistance and dysfunction may lead to diabetes. Other pathologies and some specific types of cancers are known to come from gene mutations that may arise during incorrect cell division.

In cancer studies, obtaining the precise genetic and biochemical information from the affected tissue or organ is essential for genetic and epigenetic analysis. This requires the isolation of a single type of cell, and in single cell omics studies just a single cell, from a complex tissue sample, or even a whole organism. With the expansion of personalized medicine, isolated cells and their uniquely associated surface markers have also been used for the target, and treatment, of specific types of cancers.Hence, cell isolation is of major importance for analysis of unique cellular mechanisms and can help provide valuable information for furthering diagnostics, biotechnological, and biomedical applications.

Cell Isolation Techniques

There are several types of cell isolation techniques that vary in cost, steps, and instrumentation, among other things. Density gradient centrifugation is a traditional cell isolation technique used in many labs to separate cells by shape and size. Density gradient centrifugation, however, requires extended centrifugation times, generally ranging between 14-18 hours, at unusually high forces to achieve good levels of cell separation. Another method, fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS), has become a popular way to perform cell isolation. FACS, a specialized type of flow cytometry, couples fluorescence tagging and antibody affinity to detect specific surface markers on targeted cell types. Although highly accurate, the downsides of FACS lie in that the process is generally slow as cells are analyzed one by one, equipment and materials are costly, and personnel must be highly specialized.

Alternatively, magnetic bead separation has become an increasingly popular technique for cell isolation. Opposed to other techniques, magnetic cell isolation offers quick efficient steps, is inexpensive, and requires very little hands-on preparation by personnel. Let’s discuss magnetic cell isolation in greater detail.

Magnetic Cell Isolation

Similar to other techniques, in magnetic cell isolation an antibody specific to a surface marker on the surface of a cell type can be used to target and isolate those cells out of a mixture. In this technique, magnetic beads are pre-conjugated with antibodies, added to a cell mixture, and allowed to bind the cells of interest. Targeted cell isolation is then performed through a standard magnetic separation protocol. Magnetic cell isolation also has dual capabilities in that it can perform negative or positive selection. In negative selection, magnetic beads target and bind to unwanted material, thereby leaving isolated cells in the aqueous solution. Positive selection is essentially reversed, and target cells are trapped by the magnetic beads and held within the magnetic separation system. Either magnetic cell isolation protocol is simple through the use of magnetic separators.

FREE Download: Basic guide to magnetic bead cell separation

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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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