An automated real-time microfluidic platform to probe single NK cell heterogeneity and cytotoxicity on-chip

Nikita Subedi, Laura C. Van Eyndhoven, Ayla M. Hokke, Lars Houben, Mark C. Van Turnhout, Carlijn V. C. Bouten, Klaus Eyer & Jurjen Tel

Published: December 2021


Cytotoxicity is a vital effector mechanism used by immune cells to combat pathogens and cancer cells. While conventional cytotoxicity assays rely on averaged end-point measures, crucial insights on the dynamics and heterogeneity of effector and target cell interactions cannot be extracted, emphasizing the need for dynamic single-cell analysis. Here, we present a fully automated droplet-based microfluidic platform that allowed the real-time monitoring of effector-target cell interactions and killing, allowing the screening of over 60,000 droplets identifying 2000 individual cellular interactions monitored over 10 h. During the course of incubation, we observed that the dynamics of cytotoxicity within the Natural Killer (NK) cell population varies significantly over the time. Around 20% of the total NK cells in droplets showed positive cytotoxicity against paired K562 cells, most of which was exhibited within first 4 h of cellular interaction. Using our single cell analysis platform, we demonstrated that the population of NK cells is composed of individual cells with different strength in their effector functions, a behavior masked in conventional studies. Moreover, the versatility of our platform will allow the dynamic and resolved study of interactions between immune cell types and the finding and characterization of functional sub-populations, opening novel ways towards both fundamental and translational research.

Full Access Link: Scientific Reports