Three young physicists at Ulm University have developed a new optical method (CellMOUSE) that enables the real-time identification, characterisation and sorting of living cells and particles. This method, which can be implemented in fields such as medicine, environmental technology or biotechnology, is simple, gentle and low cost. The most interesting aspect of this new method is that the data is processed directly on the sensor chip, so that analysis and control are possible in real time. CellMOUSE is now being funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie) and the EU through the EXIST Transfer of Research Programme. The start-up team, which also includes a business administration graduate, is now receiving more than 700,00 euros to develop a market-ready prototype and make preparations to start the company.
Identifying, characterising and sorting are essential basic principles of scientific work. The three researchers from the Institute for Experimental Physics, Dr Daniel Geiger, Dr Tobias Neckernuß and Jonas Pfeil have jointly developed a platform technology at Ulm University enabling material particles and living cells to be identified based on parameters of size, shape, morphology and velocity. This procedure handles 3000 particles per second in liquid streams, a feat made possible by a clever algorithm that reduces the massive image data amounts to precisely the right size. The amount of data is small enough for real-time processing, but also large enough to capture all the relevant information. The extremely high speed enables control signals to be sent in time for particles to be sorted. The project name CellMOUSE stands for Cellular Microfluidic Optical Universal Sensing Equipment.
Manifold applications in biomedicine and pharmacology
The CellMOUSE technology can perform particularly useful services in the fields of biomedicine and pharmacology for quantifying or separating certain cell types based on frequency. This applies to immune and other blood cells as well as cancer cells. Pathological cell changes and pharmacological reactions can also be captured using this method if they manifest themselves in shape, size, morphology or stream speed. Bacteria stems can also be examined with this new technology.
The basic technological principle, however, is very broad in terms of application: “Really, any visible elements with visual differences can be captured and classified with this technology – from microscopically small particles to macroscopic elements such as granular materials. This opens up exciting areas for industrial application”, says Dr Tobias Neckernuß, an experimental physicist who is responsible for optimising the project measuring techniques.
The clever CellMOUSE algorithm dramatically reduces data amounts
The fact that this project is receiving funding through the EXIST Transfer of Research Programme is for the most part due to the innovative underlying idea of the new real-time identification and sorting procedure. The trio of physicists has developed a hardware and software solution that is just as full of tricks as it is easy to technically implement, and it is able to process analytical data directly on the sensor module. “In this way, the amount of data to be analysed is reduced in comparison with the traditional high-speed video cameras by a factor of 1000!” explains Jonas Pfeil, who is responsible for the project software and algorithms. The algorithm especially developed for CellMOUSE can distinguish between data with relevant information and the extensive remainder, which remains unprocessed. It comes as no surprise, then, that the device is so compact and handy. The team has already completed their first prototype. “Our system can easily be integrated into the microscopy infrastructure already in existence, or be connected to other optical devices”, related Dr Daniel Geiger, whose area of speciality in this project is electronics and hardware. The start-up team opted for a modular platform technology, which is tailored to different requirements depending on the application. One example is a special illumination module for microscopes, which creates adequate lighting conditions for the high-speed recording.
Scientists now developing prototype to reach the level of market maturity
The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs EXIST Transfer of Research Programme is one of the most renowned funding programmes in the area of business start-ups, focusing on the transfer of technologically demanding innovations from research to industry. The approximately 700,000 euros that the founding team is receiving over an eighteen-month period will be used for further development of the platform technology and for developing a prototype of the device to market maturity. One of the central tasks in the EXIST funding phase I is setting up a business. This includes developing a sound business model and creating a business plan. These tasks are mainly the responsibility of Barbara Eberbach, the business school graduate in the team. The founders are also supported in their work by Professor Othmar Marti, head of the Institute for Experimental Physics, the parent institute of the spin-off company.
The local business founders were especially thrilled by the positive response to their appearance at the LABVOLUTION trade fair. The leading trade fair for the laboratory sector took place in Hanover in May. The three physicists and the business school graduate all agree that “setting up your own business is a very demanding affair, but also very exciting”.
Text and Mediacontact: Andrea Weber-Tuckermann