Worlds within a cell

Destinies of single cells point to bold new approaches to infection and disease.

All cells are not created equal. The Microscale Life Sciences Center, an NIH Center of Excellence in Genomic Science, is exploring individual cell behaviors with a level of exquisite detail that would have been impossible only a short time ago. At the MLSC, headquartered at the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Ecogenomics, we study how living cells respond dynamically to stimuli in different ways and on differing timetables. Among groups of cells, individual cell fates are varied; one cell may replicate while its near neighbor dies. This cellular heterogeneity has profound implications for the progress of infection and disease. Until recently however, studies and diagnostic testing have focused primarily on large populations of cells.

Today, new research at the microscale level is enhancing our insight into fundamental aspects of the disease process. As genomic sequencing begins to transform biology from a purely descriptive to a predictive science, concurrent revolutions in biotechnology are enabling us to peer into subtle transformations at the single cell level. MLSC is at the forefront of these exciting developments, both in terms of scientific discovery and in the design and engineering of highly sensitive, automated technologies for single cell observation.

Variables such as pro-inflammatory cell death, programmed cell death and cell death avoidance are crucial for understanding the trajectory of disease, particularly in cases of cancer, heart disease and stroke, the leading fatal illnesses in the United States. The MLSC’s multidisciplinary team of biochemists, biologists, microbiologists, engineers and physicists—lead by Deidre Meldrum, Dean of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering—carry out real time investigations of the intricate details of cell proliferation and demise. The ultimate goal of this path-breaking work is the development of a new approach to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease—one rooted in a holistic understanding of biological events from single cells to living organisms.

Funding: The National Institutes of Health's (NIH) National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)


  • University of Washington
  • The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
  • Brandeis University

Project Website: Microscale Life Sciences Center