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Facing the Challenges of Living-Cell Research

Vance McCarthy, Nano World News
October 4, 2006

Quantum Dots Enabled Scientists To 'Find' Disease, Now Nanopoint Brings a New Wave of Integrated Nanotech Tools To Enable Researchers To Watch How Things Work (or Go Wrong) Inside Living Cells.

An emerging suite of nano-scale technologies are helping researchers unlock the inner workings of a living cell, looking at the operations of stem cells, genetics and disease.

University researchers, including those at North Carolina State University, University of Arizona, University of Hawaii, and several leading U.S. medical centers including The Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu and Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, are looking to a new wave of equipment and software to probe the nanoscale secrets of living cells.

Nanopoint's cellTRAY Imaging System CT-2000 captures a nanoprobe "engaging" the cell membrane with light exiting the aperture. The image is from Nanopoint's collaboration with the University of Hawaii Cancer Research Center.

"Watching the operations of a living cell, over time, while the cell interacts with a variety of stimuli, is an exciting area for a growing number of researchers," said Cathy Owen, president of Nanopoint in Honolulu, Hawaii. Nanopoint's cellTRAY imaging technologies include a life support and containment system for individual cells enabling time-based studies and automated image capture and analysis.

"We all know about the promise of stem cells, but there have been limits until now to our knowledge about how stem cells really begin to differentiate themselves. Recreating a specific disease in a cellTRAY using stem cells may also speed up the development of lifesaving drugs," Owen told Nano World News.

"Thousands of drugs could be quickly tested on the almost unlimited supply of diseased cells that might be grown from stem cells. Such rapid screening could make useful drugs available years earlier than they might be otherwise. And this type of work can only be done at a very small scale, and while the stem cells are still alive," Owen added.

How Nanopoint Helps Crack the Code For Unlocking Secrets of Living Cells

Nanopoint's technologies, now in early use at leading research centers, is pushing back the curtain on how disease enters a cell, how antibodies work, how neurological operations work at a cellular (or intra-cellular) level, and even giving researchers a glimpse into cellular-signaling, particularly transduction signal pathway analysis and new approaches for gene silencing by RNAi.

And, there is a logical progression to nanoscale live-cell research from another popular nano-based technology - Quantum Dots.

"There's no question that quantum dots opened up a whole new way to look inside a cell to detect abnormalities and disease as well as enable a new class of drug therapeutics," Owen said. "Quantum dots can be attached to proteins inside the cell membrane, and since they glow we are now able to see more than ever before, but there are other questions yet to be answered. Researchers need to be able to see the cellular system functioning. It's going to take time to get there at ultra-high resolutions, but this live-cell imaging technology is a natural next step," she added.

With its early resume, Nanopoint has emerged as one of the leading innovators in enabling researchers to probe the secrets of living cells. Unlike many device-centric providers, Nanopoint takes a solutions-oriented approach, piecing together many elements to provide researchers a highly integrated living-cell research platform.

Integrating Products to Support Research into the Cell Life Cycle

"We have discovered that live-cell research has some very special needs. And, while many off-the-shelf traditional high content screening systems and microscopy products can come close to supporting some of this work, there is something that must be done differently or approached in a different way to facilitate breakthroughs unachievable with traditional products," Owen said. "So, we have custom-designed and miniaturized many of the pieces research scientists need to efficiently conduct precise live-cell studies."

Working with live-cell researchers at NC State, UofA and UH, along with some undisclosed commercial research partners, Nanopoint's integrated imaging solution reflects some well-learned, hands-on lessons in the field of live-cell research. In total, Nanopoint's integrated live-cell research solution includes an entire range of microscopic extensions, as well as computer software and Best Practices for how to conduct live-cell research. Items include:

  • cellTRAY Imaging System (CT-1000), a robust imaging platform for cell-based assays and live cell imaging
  • cellTRAY, a device for the precise containment of an array of individual live cells
  • cellTRAY Imaging System (CT-2000), a cell-culturing and life support microfluidics system which automatically delivers nutrients and reagents while removing waste
  • Specially-designed software for navigation, viewing and capturing images of live cells in the cellTRAY

"Keeping cells alive under various research conditions can create a lot of challenges to scientists," Owen told NWN. "By offering a miniaturized, pre-integrated solution, we're encouraging more precise experiments, new types of experiments, and a reduction in reagents and materials used per experiment," she said.

The cellTRAY is not a traditional micro-titer plate. Owen describes it as a "slide with thousands of small chambers or wells on board, to make it easier to examine smaller groups of cells, and keep them alive throughout the duration of an experiment". Traditionally, when researchers examine a cell, they have to look at large numbers of cells clustered in each well. Nanopoint's cellTRAY has 7,614 wells on a single slide - more than 5 times the capacity of anything currently on the market.

In addition, the CT-1000's design allows scientists to get images of the cell in the "well," while providing an environment for feeding and treating the cell. "I have heard it described as a small aquarium for cells, and that's not a bad description," Owen said.

Still in start-up phase, Nanopoint has received venture funding from several U.S. investors, including Advantage Capital Partners, and from Global Venture Capital, based in Tokyo. In 2004, Nanopoint was spun-out of Oceanit Laboratories, a multifaceted technology company based in Honolulu.

"We have worked very hard to make our technologies work as an integrated application solution. In that way, we think we can get many more vendors interested in offering these well-designed live-cell solutions," Owen said, hinting that the company's approach to a "live-cell research solution" may be helping shape how much larger nanoscience suppliers think about the sector. "We are speaking to microscope manufacturers and reagent companies, and showing them how we are thinking about the best and most cost-effective way to offer researchers a live-cell solution. It is always an interesting conversation," she said.