The ability of isolating cell variants – be it blood cell components, diseased or infected cells from healthy, and transformed cells from normal underpins new therapies, treatments and diagnostics across the sector, resulting in a market valued at approximately $4Bn today.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, cell separation takes place using one of three separation methods, each taking approximately 1/3 of total market share by value.

Density gradients exploit differences in cell densities; centrifuging cells in the presence of a density gradient causes the cells to band, allowing retrieval. Fluorescently-activated cell sorting (FACS) uses fluorophore-conjugated antibodies as a discriminator; cells are launched in droplets, each containing one cell, through a fluorescence detection system to determine the cell type and are then electrostatically diverted into different output receptacles.  Finally, magnetically-activated cell sorting (MACS) uses magnetic microbeads conjugated with antibodies. These bind to targets on cell surfaces, which then can be extracted by applying a magnetic field.

However, all three methods have drawbacks.  Density gradient methods are simple to use and have high throughput, but are only amenable where cells with significant morphological differences, such as blood cell fractionation.    High-throughput FACS can sort typically 20 million cells at rates of up to 50,000 cells per second, with higher rates achievable at the cost of purity. FACS is also very expensive to buy (>$100k for a device) and run (due to costs of antibodies and other fluorescent labels). MACS has a lower cost of entry (typically $2k), though the running costs remain; and it has higher throughput (up to 1 billion cells, with 10% in the target fraction).  Separations take typically 2h including time for beads to attach to cells. Only density gradient does not require the use of chemical labels; the others use fluorescent chemicals or antibodies to indicate the target population.  These are expensive and may have limited specificity; in the case of MACS, the target protein must be present on the surface of the cells. Following separation, the labels may also persist in the cells, limiting their usefulness.  Cell losses in FACS and MACS can exceed half the population, particularly at high sorting rates.

The EPACE Approach

We have developed a DEP-based cell separation system capable of overcoming all of these shortcomings.  Using a patent-protected approach, we have developed chips enabling over 500 parallel cell separation paths, offering unprecedented throughput, separation capacity and cost.  The technology is protected by an awarded patent, valid to 2028.

The system employs a disposable cartridge into which the cell mixture is inserted; the cell mixture is pushed through the chip using a built-in syringe.  The cells pass through a chip containing 500 channels, each with 12 electrodes; one fraction of cells is attracted to the electrodes and is electrostatically trapped at the electrodes, like an electrostatic sieve; the other is repelled, passes through the chip and is collected at the outlet.  If fresh medium is drawn into the chip and then the retaining field is released, the second fraction can be recovered.  The supporting instrument is small, comprising only a syringe driver and signal generator.

The throughput of the device is staggering.  Whereas separating a billion cells would take all day by FACS and several hours by MACS, EPACE can perform the same operation 10 minutes. Cell purity and recovery rates of over 95% are commonplace, whilst cell losses are typically below 5%.    And low cell losses mean that purity can be increased simply by reprocessing outputted cells; after three passes, separation rates approach 99%, allowing enrichment of very small fractions.  The platform is completely scalable, so that for example a device capable of sorting all the white blood cells in a patient’s blood would be possible in under 30 minutes.  Since the system uses no labels, it can be used for therapeutic uses whilst keeping costs down.  Furthermore, because the base unit is relatively inexpensive (when compared to, say, FACS) it can be used in class 3 biosafety laboratories where regulations prevent equipment sharing, restricting the possibility of any form of cell separation

Consumables can all be supplied sterile.  No other separation method offers so much, and no other costs so little. There are many separation markets where existing technologies simply cannot provide what is needed.  High-throughput therapeutic separation.  High biosafety containment.  Stem cell separation.  Low-cost benchtop separators for every lab.  EPACE offers all of these things and more.

What we are looking for

We are currently developing production prototypes of both the base station and consumable components, and plan to get systems to ten customers for evaluation purposes in 2018.

We are looking for partnership with companies who can help us to realise our ambition of getting EPACE technologies into labs across the world.

By making these strategic partnerships we aim to facilitate the spread of EPACE and speed up its adoption as a revolutionary cell separation tool.