Optofluidic time-stretch imaging – an emerging tool for high-throughput imaging flow cytometry
Optical imaging is arguably the most effective tool to visualize living cells with high spatiotemporal resolution and in a nearly noninvasive manner. Driven by this capability, state-of-the-art cellular assay techniques have increasingly been adopting optical imaging for classifying different cell types/stages, and thus dissecting the respective cellular functions. However, it is still a daunting task to image and characterize cell-to-cell variability within an enormous and heterogeneous population – an unmet need in single-cell analysis, which is now widely advocated in modern biology and clinical diagnostics. The challenge stems from the fact that current optical imaging technologies still lack the practical speed and sensitivity for measuring thousands to millions of cells down to the single-cell precision. Adopting the wisdom in high-speed fiber-optics communication, optical time-stretch imaging has emerged as a completely new optical imaging concept which is now proven for ultrahigh-throughput optofluidic single-cell imaging, at least 1–2 orders-of-magnitude higher (up to ∼100 000 cells per second) compared to the existing imaging flow cytometers. It also uniquely enables quantification of intrinsic biophysical markers of individual cells – a largely unexploited class of single-cell signatures that is known to be correlated with the overwhelmingly investigated biochemical markers. With the aim of reaching a wider spectrum of experts specializing in cellular assay developments and applications, this paper highlights the essential basics of optical time-stretch imaging, followed by reviewing the recent developments and applications of optofluidic time-stretch imaging. We will also discuss the current challenges of this technology, in terms of providing new insights in basic biology and enriching the clinical diagnostic toolsets.