Daniel Irimia, MD, PhD, (left) and his team are hoping to learn more about the mechanisms of cell movement and its relationship to sepsis
Daniel Irimia, MD, PhD

Daniel Irimia, MD, PhD

There is one high stakes competition this year where cheating is not only allowed, it is highly encouraged. But in this case, no one will object to bending the rules if it means being able to stop a killer.

This fall, experts in the field of cell movement from across the globe will come to Massachusetts General Hospital to pit their customized strains of cells against each other in a race to see which cells are the fastest at following chemical signals through a millimeter-sized maze.

The event, called the Dicty World Race 2016, is organized by Daniel Irimia, MD, PhD, an investigator at Mass General’s Center for Engineering in Medicine.

The race is designed be a fun and friendly competition, but the goal is a serious one—to find better ways to diagnose and treat sepsis, a deadly and costly condition that continues to puzzle clinicians and researchers alike.

Dr. Irimia hopes the race will also raise awareness about sepsis, which has a surprisingly low public profile despite its massive health impact.

“We want people to talk about the race and about sepsis, which is a condition that affects 20 times more people in the U.S. than HIV does, but only one in six Americans knows that it even exists.”


Sepsis is an abnormal response of the human immune system to an infection. It causes more injury to the body than the infection itself and often proves fatal.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, sepsis affects more than one million Americans each year, and between 28 and 50 percent of them die.

Sepsis can occur following an infection in any part of the body, including the skin, lungs, urinary tract or abdomen. Anyone is susceptible to sepsis, but the risk is higher in people with weakened immune systems, babies and young children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and people suffering from severe burns or wounds.

Symptoms include shivering, extreme pain or discomfort, pale or discolored skin, sleepiness, and shortness of breath.

As the condition progresses, sepsis can cause tissue damage, organ failure and death. Many survivors of sepsis have to deal with long-term health issues.

Despite the significant impact of sepsis, it is an under-recognized condition that receives little funding or headlines.

When the famous boxer Mohammed Ali died earlier this year, most of the news focused on the fact that he had long suffered from Parkinson’s disease, when his actual cause of death was sepsis that may have started with a respiratory infection.


Dr. Irimia believes that by understanding the movement of neutrophils—the white blood cells that act as the body's first line of defense against infection—we can better predict the onset of sepsis and develop new strategies for treatment.

In healthy individuals, the response of neutrophils to an invading pathogen is like that of a well-trained army. They move quickly from blood to tissues, navigate to the invading microbes and launch an immune counterattack that is appropriate to the threat.

In patients with sepsis, however, this neutrophil army falls into disarray. The cells become sluggish and slow, taking longer to get to the site of the infection or going off in the wrong direction entirely. As a result, the body’s immune system goes haywire and launches an overwhelming response that attacks the body’s tissues and organs.

The purpose of the Dicty Race is to gain a better understanding of how neutrophils move under normal conditions and what techniques can be used to make them move faster.

The teams will use two different types of cells, HL60 human cells and the cells of an amoeba called Dictyostelium discoideum (dicty cells—thus the name of the race).

Both of these cell types mimic the movement of neutrophil cells in the body. During the competition, the cells will follow a chemical signal through a millimeter-long maze of interconnected channels designed to mimic the cell’s natural environment.

The microfluidic "racetracks" used in the race are built with technology similar to that used to create memory chips for cellphones. This highly precise process helps to ensure that each racetrack is identical to the others down to the tiniest detail.

For competitors in the race, finding ways to boost the natural performance of their cell lines is not only allowed, it is encouraged.

Any tactics that can speed up the process of cell movement could point towards a strategy that could be used to restore normal immune function in sepsis patients.

Dicty Race


To encourage more participation in the Dicty Race this fall, Dr. Irimia has launched a crowdfunding campaign that will provide resources and training for cell racing teams.

The first round of donations will support the creation of practice racetracks that will be sent to participants so they can start training their strains for the big day.

Further donations will cover the cost of coordinating the races, purchasing materials, and publishing the results of the race. To support these efforts, please visit the Dicty Race’s fundraising page.

Back to Top