Microfluidic single-cell analysis for systems immunology
The immune system constantly battles infection and tissue damage, but exaggerated immune responses lead to allergies, autoimmunity and cancer. Discrimination of self from foreign and the fine-tuning of immunity are achieved by information processing pathways, whose regulatory mechanisms are little understood. Cell-to-cell variability and stochastic molecular interactions result in diverse cellular responses to identical signaling inputs, casting doubt on the reliability of traditional population-averaged analyses. Furthermore, dynamic molecular and cellular interactions create emergent properties that change over multiple time scales. Understanding immunity in the face of complexity and noisy dynamics requires time-dependent analysis of single-cells in a proper context. Microfluidic systems create precisely defined microenvironments by controlling fluidic and surface chemistries, feature sizes, geometries and signal input timing, and thus enable quantitative multi-parameter analysis of single cells. Such qualities allow observable dynamic environments approaching in vivo levels of biological complexity. Seamless parallelization of functional units in microfluidic devices allows high-throughput measurements, an essential feature for statistically meaningful analysis of naturally variable biological systems. These abilities recapitulate diverse scenarios such as cell–cell signaling, migration, differentiation, antibody and cytokine production, clonal selection, and cell lysis, thereby enabling accurate and meaningful study of immune behaviors in vitro.