Lossless immunocytochemistry using photo-polymerized hydrogel thin-films
Immunocytochemistry (ICC), or immunofluorescence microscopy, is an essential biological technique for phenotyping cells in both research and diagnostic applications. Standard ICC methods often do not work well when the cell sample contains a small number of cells (<10 000) because of the significant cell loss that occurs during washing, staining, and centrifugation steps. Cell loss is particularly relevant when working with rare cells, such as circulating tumor cells, where such losses could significantly bias experimental outcomes. In order to eliminate cell loss in ICC protocols, we present a method to encapsulate the cell sample in a photo-polymerized hydrogel thin-film. The hydrogel thin-film is permeable to antibodies and other ICC reagents, thereby allowing the use of standard ICC protocols without modification. The cell sample is physically constrained by the hydrogel at the bottom surface of a standard (unmodified) imaging microtiter plate, thereby enabling the acquisition of high-quality micrographs regardless of the properties of the cell sample or staining reagents. Furthermore, while standard ICC requires several centrifugation steps during staining and washing, our hydrogel encapsulation method requires only a single centrifugation step. This property greatly reduces the time required to perform ICC protocols and is more compatible with robotic platforms. In this study, we show that standard ICC and Cytospin protocols are extremely lossy (>70% loss) when the sample contains less than 10 000 cells, while encapsulating the cells using a permeable hydrogel thin-film results in a lossless ICC process.