Rare cell capture in microfluidic devices

Erica D. Pratt, Chao Huang, Benjamin G. Hawkins, Jason P. Gleghorn, Brian J. Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


This article reviews existing methods for the isolation, fractionation, or capture of rare cells in microfluidic devices. Rare cell capture devices face the challenge of maintaining the efficiency standard of traditional bulk separation methods such as flow cytometers and immunomagnetic separators while requiring very high purity of the target cell population, which is typically already at very low starting concentrations. Two major classifications of rare cell capture approaches are covered: (1) non-electrokinetic methods (e.g., immobilization via antibody or aptamer chemistry, size-based sorting, and sheath flow and streamline sorting) are discussed for applications using blood cells, cancer cells, and other mammalian cells, and (2) electrokinetic (primarily dielectrophoretic) methods using both electrode-based and insulative geometries are presented with a view towards pathogen detection, blood fractionation, and cancer cell isolation. The included methods were evaluated based on performance criteria including cell type modeled and used, number of steps/stages, cell viability, and enrichment, efficiency, and/or purity. Major areas for improvement are increasing viability and capture efficiency/purity of directly processed biological samples, as a majority of current studies only process spiked cell lines or pre-diluted/lysed samples. Despite these current challenges, multiple advances have been made in the development of devices for rare cell capture and the subsequent elucidation of new biological phenomena; this article serves to highlight this progress as well as the electrokinetic and non-electrokinetic methods that can potentially be combined to improve performance in future studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1508-1522
Number of pages15
JournalChemical Engineering Science
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 1 2011
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The work described was supported by the Cornell Center on the Microenvironment & Metastasis through Award Number U54CA143876 from the National Cancer Institute.


  • Biomedical engineering
  • Electrophoresis
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Microfluidics
  • Rare cell capture
  • Separations


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