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JST Press Release

November 19, 2018
Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST)
5-3, Yonbancho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

Successful development of a precision device to suck intracellular substances at ease

A Result of NexTEP: Joint Industry-Academia Practical Application Development Project

A development team of Yokogawa Electric Corporation has developed a suction device, which can automatically suck up intracellular substances. The device sucks up the target substances from the specific locations of the objective cells, which had been selected based on user-defined conditions beforehand, to analyze by mass spectroscopy. This technology will be able to put Single-cell mass spectroscopy analysis into practical use.

Single-cell mass spectroscopy1) is a technology to analyze target cell organelles2) almost as they are, by taking them out from a living cell at a desired time point using a Nanospray Tip3) while tracking the cell movement under microscope. This technology is highly expected to be a powerful tool to unravel molecular mechanism of the deceases, single-cell diagnosis and personalized medicine4). However, existing technology requires manual suction from an individual cell one by one, thus its precision highly depends on the proficiency level of operators. Also, it requires a significantly long time to analyze many cells. Accordingly, demands for automatic suction and much higher sampling efficiency have been growing.

To overcome such problems, we have developed an automatic suction device by combining such technologies as cellular image analysis to select the target, precision positioning of the target location in a cell, and a software for one-click suction. Specifically, you capture microscopy images of cells and calculate their feature quantities, such as the shape and size, and fluorescent intensity. Since such feature quantities reflect the changes caused by drug dosages, they are useful as the objective reference to specify target cells and to maintain high reproducibility of sucked samples. (Fig.1)

Moreover, Yokogawa Electric Corporation's proprietary confocal microscopy technology5) and image analysis methods enable three-dimensional measurement of the cell shape and precision positioning of the sucking location at the accuracy of the micron order.

Concerning the detection of the tip position, we have newly developed “Detection by image intensity” method6) capable for detecting the tip location at the accuracy of less than one micron. (Fig.2 and Fig.3)

Furthermore, learning from the expert operators' experiences, we have defined the most suitable position for sucking and have incorporated such information in the software, which provides not only the sucking location but also sucking conditions such as pressure and time. As a result, users can suck the target cell organelles by one-click while observing the images of the objective cell. The prototype model, which has all such new features, has successfully obtained a total of 22 samples per hour, which is 4 times more efficient than a manual operation, and thus succeeded in obtaining the specific substances from the target position of the objective cell at high efficiency and precision.

Realization of highly reproducible automatic suction device leads to the practical use of Single-cell mass spectroscopy, which will be widely used for drug discovery, personalized medicine, and so on. In addition to mass spectroscopy, this suction device may be applied for other research, such as sucking a whole cell for mRNA analysis, injection of sucked substances into another cell, etc., and thus will contribute to a wide variety of research fields.

1) Single-cell mass spectroscopy
A technology to analyze target cell organelles, by trapping and sucking them out from a living cell at a desired time point using a specified thin tube called Nanospray Tip while tracking the cell movement under microscope. Around hundreds femtoliter (fL) sample will be sucked out and analyzed by mass spectroscopy to detect thousands of molecular peaks. In comparison to the conventional analysis based on the mean value of multiple cells, this technology allows for a comprehensive analysis of molecular changes at a single cell level, thus expected to be useful for the unraveling of molecular mechanism of the deceases, single-cell diagnosis, and personalized medicine.
2) Cell organelles
A general term of intracellular structures, which includes the nucleus to preserve and transfer genetic codes, mitochondria to produce energy, chloroplast to run photosynthesis, etc.
3) Nanospray Tip
Special thin tube with a tip whose inner diameter is around φ3μm, and outer diameter is around φ5μm. It works as an electrode thus its outer surface is partially coated with conductive materials.
4) Personalized medicine
Medical treatment considering individual variation of each patient and select drugs and therapy based on the genetic information and symptom of each patient. Also called tailored medicine or made-to-order medicine.
5) Confocal Microscope technology
A microscopy design in which, when the light emitted from a light source focus on a specimen, its reflected light will be focused on the detector surface. Since unfocused light do not reach at the detector surface, only the focused part can be observed significantly brighter. It gives high-resolution and low-noise images, thus allow for highly reliable image analysis. Moreover, it is possible to measure three-dimensional shape of object by capturing and reconstructing images of multiple focal planes.
6) Detection by Image Intensity Method
A method to detect the location of a sucking tip based on the principle that the tip image becomes brightest when located at the focal point of the objective lens, when moving the tip towards the objective lens under microscope. Since a confocal microscope is used for this device to attain excellent spatial resolution, it is possible to detect the tip at the accuracy level of less than 1μm
Fig.1 Screen of the software for “One-click Sucking”

Fig.1 Screen of the software for “One-click Sucking”

The individual dots in the “Histogram Feature Quantities” corresponds to each cell. For example, to pick up cells which became brighter by strongly responding to the addition of a reagent in a wide area, select and click such dots on the histogram to decide the cells for sucking. It is also possible to automatically select and suck cells based on the preset feature quantities range and area.

Fig.2 Sucking of Intracellular Substances

Fig.2 Sucking of Intracellular Substances

The cross section image shows the sucking process. The sucking tip is transparent, thus invisible.

Fig.3 Image examples of a sucking process

Fig.3 Image examples of a sucking process

  • (a) The cell before sucking, (b) Moment before pricking
  • (c) Right after pricking, (d) Sucking is under way
  • (e) Right after lifting up the tip, (f) Tip after sucking

Program Information

Research Theme “Automatic Intracellular Substance Sampling System Based on Confocal Image Analysis”


[About Research]
Bio Solution Center, Life Innovation Business HQ

[About Program]
Toshiya Ohtake
Department of Industry-Academic Collaboration, JST


JST, an integrated organization of science and technology in Japan, establishes an infrastructure for the entire process from the creation of knowledge to the return to the society. For more information, visit https://www.jst.go.jp/EN/