One cell in a million

November 26th 2018

Two IBMM laboratories have received special funding for large equipment from FNRS to buy a cell sorting machine. This technique lets researchers isolate cells that exist in low numbers and have highly specific characteristics, and it will help research in a variety of fields, especially in microbiology.

With FNRS' call for proposals for large equipment funding, researchers can acquire expensive instruments that are necessary for their research. The laboratories of Carine Van Lint and Laurence Van Melderen (Department of Molecular Biology, IBMM) are among the winners of the 2018 funding campaign. Their prize: a cell sorter worth nearly €500,000.

Persistent bacteria
A FACS (Fluorescence-activated cell sorting) is a machine that identifies and sorts cells individually, with targeted cells marked using a fluorescent tag. This lets the cell sorter isolate cells that have specific characteristics that the researchers are looking for within a mixed cell population. Acquiring this type of machine had become a top priority for the Cellular and Molecular Microbiology Laboratory. The laboratory studies bacterial persistence, a phenomenon in which bacteria cells become able to tolerate antibiotics. ‘It is difficult, however, to observe and analyse persistent cells, as persistence spreads at a very low rate in the overall bacteria population,’ explains Laurence Van Melderen, head of the laboratory. ‘In order to better understand what is happening in a persistent cell, which genes are activated, and so on, we must first isolate these cells from all the “normal” ones. So the FACS will be especially helpful to us.’

Sorting different populations
The Molecular Virology Laboratory has the same need, as it studies latency in HIV-1, the causal agent of AIDS. Latency is how the virus can remain ‘hidden’ inside certain infected cells without being spotted by the immune system. It is therefore essential to understand this phenomenon in order to eventually develop a cure for AIDS by eliminating these rare latent cells, as they are major obstacles to eradicating the disease. By acquiring a FACS, the laboratory will be able to isolate cells that contain the latent virus, but also to go one step farther: ‘we will be able to identify various populations among the latent cells, each with specific markers at their surface. Then, we can study what the various markers do, with types of latent cell contributing to pathogenesis in its own way,’ explains Carine Van Lint, head of the laboratory.

Until spring!
All these new studies will soon be possible thanks to FNRS' support. The new equipment will be installed in the IBMM's 2 biosafety laboratory, and accessible to other Biopark researchers through the implementation in the campus’ cytometry platform which is currently being structured. The purchase process is underway, and the teams are testing various models of FACS: delivery and final installation are scheduled for spring of 2019.