Platform technology for highly parallel single-cell genetic analysis of tumour tissue

GO-Bio round 8 – Dr Johannes B. Woehrstein – Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich – Faculty of Physics – Chair of Rädler (Experimental Physics - soft condensed matter)

Beneficiary: Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Project Description

One reason cancer is so difficult to fight is because it is constantly changing and is extremely varied. Patients usually exhibit a mix of cancer cells with differing levels of aggression. Cell biologists refer to the heterogeneity of a tumour. For a therapy to be as effective as possible, doctors aim to identify the most aggressive cells in a patient's body to be able to attack them.

For the first time, single-cell analysis has made it possible to see the differences between cells. It is one of the most dynamic fields in biotechnology today. The latest generation of bio-analytical methods allow the finest traces of genetic material or proteins to be collected from a cell. Furthermore, procedures have now been developed to capture, isolate and examine many thousands of cells at once. The crux of the common processes: they generally require a sequence of enzymatic steps which often lead to material loss and are prone to error.

The Munich-based scientists, led by Johannes B. Woehrstein from the"DEOXY Technologies" GO-Bio team, have dedicated their work on that issue. The team hope to establish a platform technology which builds on their own florescent nanoparticles, enabling genes from individual cells to be measured quickly and reliably in high-throughput sequences. Thanks to the DEOXY Nanoreporter, it is possible to detect the quantity of messenger RNA molecules (mRNAs) in a known gene, to make them visible and capable of being counted. The process does not use enzymatic steps.The researchers have been developing a microfluidic chip as a “test bed”. Its micro-channels allow for the precise measurement of gene activity in isolated tumour cells removed from a mix. Reagents are employed in that situation to break the cell envelope, leaving only genetic material behind. The process lets the nanoreporters attach to their target mRNA molecules immediately. They subsequently emit a light signal that can be recognised under the fluorescent microscope.

The DEOXY system is accurate and highly sensitive as it can detect known genes instantly. That is why it is suited to the demands of clinical practice: it can be used to analyse more than a thousand cells at once and the activity of more than a hundred genes can be measured simultaneously for each cell. It is therefore very quick and simple to classify tumour cells according to their type and to find the most aggressive ones. Building on that, doctors can then select personalised tumour therapy for each patient. By the end of the first GO-Bio stage, the Munich-based team plans for the measurement system to be fully ready for use in partner clinics. They then also plan to start a company.