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N.M. at forefront of super-fast cytometers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chalk up another major New Mexico breakthrough in developing super-fast cytometers for medical diagnostics and drug discovery.

University of New Mexico scientists have created a way to immensely accelerate the processing power of flow-through cytometers, or cell meters, which are used worldwide to screen tissue samples for clinical research.

It’s a technology most people probably never heard of, but UNM’s innovation could mean better and faster diagnosis of diseases and the development of new drugs to treat them. That’s because researchers need super-processing capability to analyze hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of molecules per second. That is something today’s cytometers are still unable to do even though the technology has been around more than 30 years.

Given the potential of UNM’s innovation, a new startup company, Sandia Electro-Optics Corp., already has taken an option to license the technology, and it’s now working to commercialize it.

“It typically takes five to 10 years for a new drug to move through the research pipeline before getting to market because of the sheer volume of testing needed to measure its efficacy and to rule out side effects,” said Sandia Electro-Optics founder and CEO Michael J. Cumbo. “Greater speeds can help crack open diagnostics for a lot more discovery, something today’s cytometers can’t provide.”

This is UNM’s second major breakthrough in flow-through cytometry. Researchers from the UNM Health Sciences Center previously developed a method to increase cytometer processing capability by 30 to 40 times faster than traditional cytometers.

That technology was licensed in 2006 by IntelliCyt Corp., a venture-backed company in Albuquerque that is now marketing it worldwide.

But that system, invented by Larry Sklar and Bruce Edwards of UNM’s Center for Molecular Discovery, is quite different from UNM’s new innovation.

Both technologies modify the structure of flow-through cytometers, which use fluids to push blood or tissue samples through thin canals for analysis. As the samples flow through the machine, a laser is used to image and measure the molecular compounds in each cell.

Today’s cytometers can analyze up to 50,000 cells per second for each tissue sample fed into the machine. That’s good for a lot of medical diagnostics work, but it’s much too slow for drug discovery. That calls for hundreds of millions, if not billions of tests to measure drug interaction with a huge variety of cell types, proteins and genes.

IntelliCyt has improved the process by increasing the speed at which tissue samples are fed into cytometers. Traditionally, cytometers have only processed one test-tube sample at a time. IntelliCyt, however, uses special microplates with dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of small indentations, or “wells.” Each well holds different tissue samples that are rapidly injected into the machine.

With that system, a cytometer still only analyzes up to 50,000 cells per second for each sample, but it processes a far greater number of samples, speeding the entire process.

In contrast, Sandia Electro-Optics’ technology actually increases the cytometer’s cellular analysis rate for each sample, potentially allowing up to 1 million or more cells per second to be screened, according to its inventors, Steven Graves and Andrew Shreve of UNM’s Chemical and Nuclear Engineering Department.

Graves and Shreve used sound waves to split single fluid channels in standard cytometers into multiple channels that simultaneously push many more compounds through the machines. They also built an upgraded optics system to permit the cytometer laser to illuminate all flow channels at the same time. That allows for simultaneous screening and processing of all the additional tissue samples flowing through the machine.

Although the inventors have shown the technology works in the laboratory, Cumbo said it will take about two to three years and up to $3 million to develop it enough to attract investment from an industrial partner with the financial muscle to take it to market.

“We’ll get all the intellectual property done and move it to investment grade as quick as possible, then we’ll look for bigger players to come in,” Cumbo said.

The company leased a 13,000-square-foot space in May at the industrial zone near Candelaria NE and Interstate 25. The company also acquired a small Albuquerque machine shop, Unique Services Inc., in April to do prototyping work in-house for the new cytometer, and for other technologies that Cumbo expects to commercialize from New Mexico’s universities and labs.

Cumbo may get a market boost from New Mexico’s reputation as a leader in the field of cytometry.

Apart from UNM, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories have a long history in developing cytometers. The field grew out of post-World War II research into the effects of radiation on biological organisms and the need to measure and analyze things at the cellular level. As the technology matured, the labs worked with industry and research universities to apply it to medical diagnostics.

Sklar said New Mexico has become a hotbed for cytometry research and development.

“We have a critical mass of scientists and infrastructure,” Sklar said. “It’s become a good breeding ground for the commercialization of technology in this field.”