Identification and genetic analysis of cancer cells with PCR-activated cell sorting

Eastburn, D., et al., Nucleic Acids Research (2014)


Cell sorting is a central tool in life science research for analyzing cellular heterogeneity or enriching rare cells out of large populations. Although methods like FACS and FISH-FC can characterize and isolate cells from heterogeneous populations, they are limited by their reliance on antibodies, or the requirement to chemically fix cells. We introduce a new cell sorting technology that robustly sorts based on sequence-specific analysis of cellular nucleic acids. Our approach, PCR-activated cell sorting (PACS), uses TaqMan PCR to detect nucleic acids within single cells and trigger their sorting. With this method, we identified and sorted prostate cancer cells from a heterogeneous population by performing >132 000 simultaneous single-cell TaqMan RT-PCR reactions targeting vimentin mRNA. Following vimentin-positive droplet sorting and downstream analysis of recovered nucleic acids, we found that cancer-specific genomes and transcripts were significantly enriched. Additionally, we demonstrate that PACS can be used to sort and enrich cells via TaqMan PCR reactions targeting single-copy genomic DNA. PACS provides a general new technical capability that expands the application space of cell sorting by enabling sorting based on cellular information not amenable to existing approaches.