Biosafety in Flow Cytometry and Sorting

One of the challenges in flow cytometry and research in general is balancing safe practices with cost and resources. The topic periodically appears on various message boards and some of the postings become quite heated–almost as passionate as the threads about isotype controls! One thread from April 2014 starts here:
and you can follow along with the “next message” link on the page. I’m going to borrow and reference some of the points for this post and I encourage you to read the full exchange for yourself.

Safety in research not new—we have come a long way since Marie Curie was handling uranium bare handed, or mouth pipetting was the standard practice in a lab. We would never consider doing these things now, as it has long become clear the hazards of doing so. Flow cytometry, by comparison, is a relatively new technology, and the research into the risks and hazards associated have perhaps not been incorporated into the scientific consciousness.

We do, however, have experience with lab-acquired infections, and have tools to assess the actions in flow that put the operator at risk of exposure. Just because there have not been any documented cases of infection via FACS, we can still recognize the hazards and take the proper steps to protect researchers and the general populace. If we are not experienced enough to perform a risk assessment, then we must seek the advice of those that are. Unfortunately, members of Institutional Biosafety Committees may not be experienced in the challenges and concerns as they relate to flow cytometry, so a dialogue with your board members is important to make sure that reasonable precautions are being enforced.

Our IBC considers ALL samples of human origin, even established cell lines, as BL2, so any live human cells must be run using containment or proper operator PPE. My pet example of knowing your samples is that TB colonizes the lungs, and is very rarely found circulating in blood in infected patients so a case could be made that blood from TB+ patients could be run outside of BL3 whereas sputum would have to be BL3. However, in coinfection with HIV (a HUGE problem in South Africa), TB bacterium are actually found in blood in 1 in 5 patients, and they have a lot of nasty resistant strains of it down there to boot. Knowing the source of your samples is critical in performing a proper risk assessment. The question is not are YOU willing to run, but are you willing to let someone ELSE (offspring/loved one) operate under those conditions?

As the professional society for cytometry, the International Society for Advancement of Cytometry (ISAC) has formed a committee to create recommendations and guidelines for safe practices in cytometry. First published in 2007, a newly revised 2014 ISAC biosafety Standards document is now available, linked here:
2014 ISAC Cell Sorter Biosafety Standards pdf
Other downloads and documentation relating to biosafety can be found on ISAC’s website:

ISAC is also offering an online course on the topic, free to all ISAC members.  Due to the important health implications of the information in the course, ISAC is also providing it free-of-charge to nonmembers until January 1, 2015.

Here is the announcement from the Purdue Cytometry Message Board:

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