MIT researchers expand genetic screening with new diagnostic technologies

Make way for what is being called “whole animal assays.” This new approach utilizes a lab on a chip to allow researchers to perform whole animal screening at sub-cellular resolutions in what is described as a “high throughput” manner. The new diagnostic technology was developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

MIT researchers developed this unique whole animal assay testing chip using the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. The resulting lab-on-a-chip makes it easier to conduct  genetic research into neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The traditional method of manipulating C. elegans involves using small glass and metal picks and anesthetizing the animals before submitting them for high-resolution imaging, according to Mehmet Fatih Yanik, an Assistant Professor at MIT, and Christopher Rohde, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. Yanik and Rohde wrote about their research in a report published in Biomedical Optics & Medical Imaging earlier this year. Yanik runs the BioPhotonics, BioScreening and NanoManipulation Group lab at MIT.

Such manual manipulation is slow and prone to error. It is less than ideal for high-throughput genetic studies. By contrast, use of on-chip, high-throughput, small-animal manipulation technologies offers an important benefit. It enables whole-animal studies at sub-cellular resolutions by immobilizing physiologically active animals without using chemical anesthetics or cooling. Yanik and Rohde used soft lithography and micro-fluidic valves to direct the flow of fluids and the C. elegans as needed.

“Normally you would treat the animals with the chemicals, look at them under the microscope, one at a time, and then transfer them,” Yanik said in a report published by the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT)  in Boston. “With this chip, we can completely automate that process.” CIMIT is a nonprofit consortium of teaching hospitals and engineering schools in Boston.

After the animals are flowed onto the chip, suction immobilizes them so that they can imaged, after which the phenotype can be identified. Alternatively, they can be treated directly on the chip with chemicals stored in the wells of a micro-plate under the chip.

Researchers predict that this new whole animal assay technology will accelerate genetic and drug screens. It will also enable new types of whole-animal assays to be developed. Although whole animal assays are not likely to find a place in clinical laboratories anytime soon, the enabling technologies for this diagnostic approach will also find applications in diagnostic research.

Related Information

High-throughput, on-chip, whole-animal screening at subcellular resolution

High-throughput On-chip Small-animal Screening for in vivo Genetic/compound Discoveries (with Video)