The Biopark’s cytometers

March 27th 2019

ULB’s cytometry platform in Gosselies has been up and running for nearly a year. It is constantly being updated, and is now equipped with ‘next generation’ cytometers that will enable it to meet the needs of both academic and private research.

Cytometry is highly useful in many disciplines, especially in immunology where it is a central part of the standard toolkit. Cytometry involves using antibodies coupled with fluorochromes(1) or florescent proteins (GFP, YFP, etc.). Using this approach to simultaneously analyse multiple parameters on cells in suspension, researchers are able to:
  • distinguish the many sub-populations of immune cells in a biological sample;
  • explore the functional state of cells by quantifying the expression of transcription factors, the activation status of intracellular signalling pathways, and the production of cytokines;
  • isolate cells based on these markers (using cell sorting) and study them.

Up 21 parameters at the same time!

Only a few years ago, only 5 or 6 parameters could be analysed simultaneously. The development of new fluorochromes has made it possible to significantly increase this number.
ULB’s cytometry platform in Gosselies—at the crossroads of the faculties of Science and Medicine(2)—has several machines, including analysis stations and two ‘sorting’ cytometers. ‘Depending on the researchers’ needs, some cytometers can analyse 10 to 13 parameters, while the new machines we have just acquired can analyse up to 21 parameters,’ explains David Torres, researcher at IMI and head of the platform.

Managing ‘big data’

Currently, the main challenge of cytometry is about producing a meaningful analysis of the huge volume of data produced. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to rely on ‘unsupervised’ models of bioinformatics analysis. ‘We have just acquired a machine that can do high-throughput analysis of single cells’ transcriptomes (scRNA-Seq, 10X Genomics). The technology is still being developed, and it lets us study the heterogeneity of cell populations with a higher resolution than ever before. These novel approaches can be used as a complement to cytometry, and will soon be essential in a variety of disciplines in life sciences.’

A platform open to the outside world

Initially, the purpose of ULB’s cytometry platform was to meet the requirements of academic research. ‘Very soon, though, other players—spin-offs, hospitals conducting clinical research, etc.—were contacting us for their cytometry needs,’ remembers David Torres. ‘The added value of our platform lies not only in access to our machines, but also in our expertise in immunology, whether the studies are carried out on single cells, animals, or clinical samples. In fact, we are getting more and more requests for the latter.’

(1) A fluorochrome, or fluorophore, is a chemical compound that can emit fluorescent light upon excitation (e.g. using a cytometer’s laser).
(2) The Erasme campus also has a cytometry platform.