The Democratization of Cell Sorting: Don’t Miss the Latest Developments

For years, immunologists’ need to analyze ever more biomarkers made cell sorters more complex and costly. When you tried to figure out how to run the instrument, you might have fared better with the mysterious black monolith from the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Fortunately, a new wave of innovation, reminiscent of what has happened with MP3 players, has transformed what was once challenging and expensive into something more elegant. Cell sorters are becoming smaller, simpler, faster, and cheaper, thanks to advances in high-speed electronics, software, and microfluidics. The new era of “personal” cell sorting has finally caught up to the realities of the primary users of cell sorting today: basic researchers who desire low-complexity cell sorting functions.

Cell sorters analyze millions of cells by lining them up in a column of liquid and interrogating them with laser light of specific wavelengths. The lasers excite dyes with functional groups attached to cellular biomarkers, allowing the cells to be sorted by proteins they contain. This capability has made cell sorting a vital part of cancer and other disease research, as scientists are able to rapidly analyze millions of cells from a prepared sample.

The combined price and complexity of high-end legacy systems means they are primarily found only in academic, government, and industry research facilities that have the resources to purchase, maintain, and operate them. Just calibrating such an instrument can take a significant amount of hands-on time from a highly trained technician every week.

In recent years, the market for cell sorter applications has expanded, with tens of millions of dollars earmarked for cell sorting research in 2013. Cell sorting has replaced microscopy in biofuels analysis, stem cell research, tumor cell identification, and organelle analysis, among many other research areas. This application explosion means increased demand from laboratories that have simpler needs.

Simpler cell sorter for simpler needs

In today’s market, greater than 50% of cell-sorting requires systems with assay capabilities of only one to four colors. Examples of this include sorting cells based on green fluorescent protein (GFP) expression, four-color subpopulation, and sorting of T cells. Researchers also demand immediate answers to their simple cellular level questions without having to wait for core lab time. These researchers stress efficiency, cost effectiveness, and ease of use in their cell sorters. Thus, an unmet need has emerged in the marketplace for simple, affordable cell sorters.

Over the past year, several companies have stepped up to meet this demand, and their innovative efforts have resulted in a new wave of products. In early 2012, a lab would have had to spend at least $400,000 to obtain a cell sorter capable of producing data that would be “grant-worthy.” However, beginning in 2013, the market has seen systems that not only cost at least $100,000 less, but are also simpler to use and more automated.

An example is Bio-Rad’s new S3™ Cell Sorter. This is the market’s first true benchtop system, and one of the most cost-effective options for researchers to date. The company has been able to make this product affordable by designing the system from the ground up—a strong example of product design innovation. It fits on the benchtop because the fluidics, pressure, and temperature controls are integrated into the instrument. The system also reflects the trend toward making cell sorting as intuitive as possible. Traditional systems required hours for a highly trained technician to set up and calibrate. The S3 and its highly automated software package were designed to enable even novice users to quickly set up and calibrate the instrument. Calibration requires no user involvement.

This new generation of cell sorting systems marks the beginning of “personal sorters” in laboratories, making in-house sorting research a reality for more labs. The size, price, and simplicity of cell sorters like the S3 will also enable flow core facilities to increase their capacity and handle greater workloads. These new systems are critical not just due to their low price point, but more importantly, the simplification of instrument setup, operation, and calibration. By dispensing with a trained technician for operation, labs can save significant time.

Advances in cell sorting are sure to continue at an accelerated pace, and systems like the S3 are unveiling new possibilities for laboratories everywhere. Medical research has made rapid progress as of late, making it possible to aggressively attack diseases that were once considered incurable. The democratization of cell sorting will contribute to even more significant discoveries.

For more information on the S3 Cell Sorter, please visit

Also, see the following article on flow cytometers:

Steve Kulisch is the general manager of Bio-Rad’s Cell Biology business unit. He has been with Bio-Rad Laboratories in both R&D and marketing capacities for the past 15 years; e-mail: