New Cell Sorter Helps Understand Deadly Diseases

Researchers at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine have a new state-of-the-art tool, a high-speed cell sorter, that should quicken the pace of their research. The machine sorts or collates cells into groups, allowing scientists to look only at the cells they are working on.

That’s important to researchers like Dr. Mary Tompkins, professor of immunology and director of the Flow Cytometry and Cell Sorting Laboratory. She is studying a special group of white blood cells called lymphocytes, specifically CD4 cells and the role they may play in Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). Tompkins is studying FIV as a model for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

Wading through a sea of cells trying to collect only the type you want can be taxing and time consuming. According to Tompkins, the high-speed cell sorter can do in 20 minutes what used to take three weeks. The high-speed cell sorter, used by several labs in the College of Veterinary Medicine as well as others across campus, is funded through a $452,000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Shared Instrument Grant.

“FIV is a natural infection in cats. We study the mechanisms of how this virus causes disease in the cat. It’s a good model for AIDS,” Tompkins said. “When HIV and FIV get into the body, they replicate and kill CD4 cells, so pretty soon they have killed the most important type of cell that you need to make a counterattack.”

She added, “One of the big unknowns in these diseases is that there is a greater CD4 cell loss than you can account for by the number of actual cells infected. In other words, some CD4 cells die that aren’t infected with the virus, but we don’t know why. Also, you start to see immuno-deficiencies before there is a large CD4 cell loss. What is causing that?”

According to Tompkins, the machine can process up to 70,000 cells a second, making it the fastest cell sorter in the state. And that, she says, will go a long way to helping unlock new clues in the fight against deadly diseases.

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