Sara has recently joined INL to develop sensing platforms for liquid biopsy based on SERS detection and microdroplets. Sara's research efforts are focused at the integration of nanotechnology, SERS and microdroplets in microfluidics driven by her interest in biomedical research tools.



About Sara Abalde Cela

Dr. Sara Abalde-Cela graduated in Chemistry at Universidade de Vigo (Spain) in 2008. After her graduation, she started a PhD in Colloid Sciences and Technologies at the Colloid Chemistry Group (Vigo) under the supervision of Prof. Luis Liz-Marzán. During her PhD she developed hybrid plasmonic materials as substrates for surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) spectroscopy for ultrasensitive detection in different fields. In 2013 she moved to the University of Cambridge (UK) as a Postdoctoral Research Associate to work at the Microdroplets Group lead by Prof. Chris Abell. During three years she was involved in a FP7 project (DEMA – Direct Ethanol from MicroAlgae) aiming for the high-throughput screening and sorting of bioethanol high-producers microalgae using microdroplets technology. After her postdoctoral experience she moved to a Research Centre in Spain, AIMEN, in where she was working at the Department of Advanced Materials as Senior Researcher. At AIMEN, Sara was responsible for the implementation of nanotechnology approaches in the automotive and aeronautics sectors and in project proposal writing, as well as being coordinator of European projects. She has recently joined INL to develop sensing platforms for liquid biopsy based on SERS detection and microdroplets. Her research efforts are focused at the integration of nanotechnology, SERS and microdroplets in microfluidics driven by her interest in biomedical research tools. Sara won several funding, research awards and recognitions along her career, she has around 30 contributions to conferences and 11 peer-reviewed publications. She has also being involved in science dissemination at schools and startup programmes in Cambridge, London and Vigo.



The Cofund project

Microfluidics and plasmonics join efforts on the hunt for a platform that can help oncologists in cancer prognosis. The COFUND project led by Dr Sara Abalde-Cela in collaboration with Dr Lorena Diéguez relays on nanotechnology and microfluidics to develop a real-time, high-throughput and multiplex cancer-sensing platform. A major advance recently achieved by INL researchers is a microfluidic platform able to isolate the very rare cancer cells present in the blood of metastatic patients, the so-called circulating tumour cells (CTCs).  These CTCs are a snapshot of the current cancer status of each patient, that hold predictive and prognostic value. However, after isolation of CTCs, many challenges remain ahead to fully unravel cancer behaviour and evolution. In order to extract as many information as possible from those cells, very advanced interrogating techniques need to be applied. In this context, Surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) spectroscopy arises as the ideal analytical technique due to its inherent sensitivity, specificity, multiplexing and quantification abilities. Thus, SERS plus microfluidics is a powerful combination able to overcome the current bottlenecks faced by researchers within the liquid biopsy field.

Several lines of research are being pursued by researchers involved within this project including: the synthesis of codified gold nanostars for the indirect analysis of extra and intra-cellular biomarkers; the encapsulation of the isolated CTCs in microdroplets acting as microreactors for single-cell analysis and metabolite single-cell tracking; and single-cell evolution for predicting tumour growth. Even though this project has been running at INL for less than a year, the proof-of-concept with cell lines has already started, and optimisation of plasmonic nanoparticles has been completed at this stage. Results and project concept have been spread to the community at several conferences and scientific events in Portugal, Spain, UK, Japan and Sweden. The feedback from the scientific community has been very positive so far, including some conference awards. Our preliminary results, the support from INL and research community, together with the hope that we can contribute to the cancer fight, encourage us to give our best to this challenging, but exciting project.




Sara Abalde-Cela, PhD
COFUND Research Fellow, Life Sciences (Nano4Health), Diagnostic Tools & Methods.

Nanotechnology, surface‐enhanced Raman scattering (SERS), microfluidics and microdroplets have remarkably flourished in the recent years, and are within the key enabling technologies (KETs) of nanotechnology, photonics and biotechnology.1 SERS has been progressively evolving supported on thecontinuous nanotechnology advances, as they are intrinsically linked.

A SERS spectra is the fingerprint of the molecule under study and allows for ultra-detection and multiplexing analysis.2–4 Microfluidic and microdroplets technology offer miniaturisation, automation, high-throughput and intrinsic reproducibility.5 For the specific case of cells, microdroplets have been used for the encapsulation of single-cells allowing not only for the study of mechanistic processes or drug dosing, but also for the effective sorting of cells of interest among a heterogeneous population.6,7 However, for the successful use of microfluidics and microdroplets technologies as sensing platforms a very sensitive detection strategy offering as many information about the sample of interest as possible is regarded. At this point, SERS in combination with microfluidics arises as a powerful combination able to overcome the current bottlenecks faced by researchers within the biomedical field. Specifically, within this COFUND project we have spotted the promising opportunity to develop a novel portable cancer-sensing platform being real-time, automatic, high‐throughput and multiplex by coupling SERS with microfluidics.

  1. Horizon 2020: Key enabling technologies (KETs), Booster for European Leadership in the Manufacturing Sector, 2014.
  2. Qian, X. & Nie, S. Single-Molecule and Single-Nanoparticle Sers: From Fundamental Mechanisms to Biomedical Applications. Chem. Soc. Rev. 37, 912 (2008).
  3. Rodriguez-Lorenzo, L., Fabris, L. & Alvarez-Puebla, R. A. Multiplex optical sensing with surface-enhanced Raman scattering: A critical review. Anal. Chim. Acta 745, 10–23 (2012).
  4. Abalde-Cela, S., Abell, C., Alvarez-Puebla, R. A. & Liz-Marzán, L. M. Real time dual-channel multiplex SERS ultradetection. J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 5, (2014).
  5. Theberge, A. B. et al. Microdroplets in Microfluidics: An Evolving Platform for Discoveries in Chemistry and Biology. Angew. Chemie Int. Ed. 49, 5846–5868 (2010).
  6. Huebner, A. et al. Microdroplets: A sea of applications? Lab Chip 8, 1244–1254 (2008).
  7. Best, R. J. et al. Label-Free Analysis and Sorting of Microalgae and Cyanobacteria in Microdroplets by Intrinsic Chlorophyll Fluorescence for the Identification of Fast Growing Strains. Anal. Chem. 88, (2016).


Latest papers

  • Due to the multidisciplinarity of Sara´s COFUND project many branches arise from the combination of the innovative technologies within. In this line, Sara has recently published a paper in which the synthesis of the plasmonic materials is successfully done in microdroplets, demonstrating that this process can be automatised and miniaturized in the future (Abalde-Cela et al. Scientific Reports, 2018). This work was started at the University of Cambridge (Sara´s previous position) and completed at INL.
  • Sara has participated as invited author in the Special Issue of Label-free Biosensing at the Biosensors Journal with the review article “Surface-Enhanced Raman Scattering Spectroscopy and Microfluidics: Towards Ultrasensitive Label-Free Sensing” (K. Kant, S. Abalde-Cela*, Biosensors, (2018), 8 (3), 62) Twitter
  • Sara has participated in a review paper for Acta Cytologica in where the clinical relevance of circulating tumour cells is reviewed and discussed, in collaboration with Dr Lorena Diéguez and Paulina Piairo from the Medical Devices Group at INL



  • The European patent - EP17189246.6 (PT), filed oct. 2017, S Abalde-Cela and L. Diéguez; “Device and method for analysis” has been refiled as PCT patent on the 4th September 2018 – “Analysis of cells in a microfluidic device”.


Conferences and networking events

May 2018: Lecture at the Advanced Course of Nanobioengineering for medicine at Universidade de Minho.

April-June 2018: Lectures of the microfluidics module at the Integrated Masters in Physics Engineering (16 hours).

April 2018: Short scientific mission (STSM) to the conference Women in Nanophotonics and visits to the Nanophotonics labs in Jena (Germany).


 CEIP, Tui, Spain

CEIP, Tui, Spain

Dissemination and outreach

May 2018: Bringing science to schools at the CEIP (Tui, Spain).
Sept 2017: Open House INL (microfluidics station)

June 2017: NERD Mission ‘bringing science to hopsitals’, and school science dissemination in February to celebrate the month of the women in science – Featured in Faro de Vigo




  • Granted May 2018: IMPACT-L FCT project granted in which Sara Abalde-Cela is participating as co-PI: “Innovative Microfluidic Platform for Analysis of myeloid Leukemia blasts” 260 K
  • Sept 2017-Sept. 2018: Participation on the I Hackathon INL-ICVS with the project Microbiome-on-a-chip: secured internal funding 5K €.
  • Sara has become an active member of the European COST Action Raman4Clinics.


RUBYnanomed startup activities

Sara is an active member of the startup RUBYnanomed, funded by Sara´s supervisor at INL Lorena Diéguez. Sara´s main activities are to act as technology officer, contact with potential investors and partners, scale-up strategy of the technology, attendance to innovation contests and events or preparation of legal documents for information exchange with partners and customers.

The most remarkable activities and achievements of the company in the recent months have been:

May 2018: RUBYnanomed has been finalist of the Everis Awards (among the 40 semifinalists out of approximately 100 applications) and Sara was the responsible of representing RUBYnanomed at the semifinal.
May 2018: Second price at the Nanotech Awards.

April 2018: Boston Roadshow, the prize for StartupBraga participation. Sara and Lorena, from RUBYnanomed, spent a full week in Boston expanding the network of both RUBYnanomed and INL, establishing contacts and increasing the awareness in the Boston area about the nanotechnology developments happening in the north of Portugal. Contact with 60 mentors in the Boston and Massachusstes area, attendance to networking events, innovation and startup hubs in the Boston area.

 May 2018 | NANOTECH Awards

May 2018 | NANOTECH Awards

 April 2018 | Boston Roadshow

April 2018 | Boston Roadshow