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A laser light show of cellular proportions

27 November 2013

In the early 1600s the development of the microscope revolutionised science as we know it. Fast-forward to the present day and it is a machine called a flow cytometer that is taking centre stage in laboratories around the world.

A microscope allows users to see features of tiny particles that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye, however microscopy has its limitations. Not the least of which is the time it takes to prepare and analyse a sample. In contrast, a flow cytometer can pick out individual particles within a mixture of millions of different particles, count them, analyse them and even capture them – all at lightening speeds. And it uses some of the most specialised lasers available to do it.

The far-reaching applications of this technology for science and medicine will be showcased in Wellington this week at the 2013 Australasian Flow Cytometry Group (AFCG) conference. The meeting will be attended by over 170 leading scientists and clinical professionals from countries as far afield as Canada, the UK and the US.

“Flow cytometry is a technology platform used to make measurements of particles,” says Kylie Price, Head of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research Cell Technology Suite and one of the organisers of this year’s conference. “For us at the Malaghan Institute, these particles tend to be the different cells of the body’s immune system.”

“Vaccine development, immune monitoring of diseases such as HIV, fertility analysis, drug testing, diagnosis of haematological disorders and cancer, are just some of its many applications, and the list continues to grow,” says Ms Price. “I am really excited about the calibre of international speakers we have attending this conference, who will present the latest developments in several of these areas.”

The AFCG conference will run from Thursday 28 November to Sunday 1 December 2013 and will include a series of workshops on latest technological developments. The meeting immediately precedes another large immunology conference being run by the Australasian Society for Immunology (ASI).

“The AFCG and ASI conferences are linked in many ways, predominantly because nearly all immunologists use flow cytometry in their research,” says Ms Price. “Immunologists are responsible for pioneering new potential applications for flow cytometry. Therefore the upgrades and changes we as flow cytometrists make to our instruments, are often in response to the demands metered by the scientist. Many of the presenters at the AFCG will also be attending the ASI and vice-versa.”

“These two communities will always be very closely linked and it is an honour for New Zealander to be hosting both of these conferences in Wellington this year. I believe this is testament to the world-class research being performed right here in Godzone.”



So how does flow cytometry work? First a scientist or clinician tags their cell of interest with fluorescent dyes. The way this is done is in itself a significant technological breakthrough but the overall goal is to simply provide the flow cytometer with something to look for – akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack.

When placed into the flow cytometer the dyes are excited by laser beams, which give out different signals that are picked up by detectors and translated into useful information about the cells present. The more lasers present in the machine, the more information it can provide in a single instance, allowing the user to quickly hone in on their particular cell type of interest.


About AFCG

The Australasian Flow Cytometry Group is “a scientific and educational organisation whose purpose is to promote research, development and applications in, and to disseminate knowledge of, flow cytometry”. The group organises annual scientific conferences and regular technical methods courses. Membership has grown to more than 300, across Australia and New Zealand. For more information visit www.afcg.org.au