Thursday, January 24, 2013

Injecting proteins and molecules in cells by squeezing

For many diseases the underlying mechanism or pathology can be explained by looking at the behaviour of cells. Because groups of cells form tissues, and tissues form organs and eventually us, effective treatment can in many cases be achieved by making cells healthy again. In order to achieve that, drugs need to find their way into the cell, but that is not always easy. Cells have shells, called membranes, that are very selective in letting molecules pass their borders. A novel technique developed by MIT may help increase the amount of molecules that can pass the cellular membrane. As it turns out, squeezing them does the trick.

Some molecules can freely pass the cell membrane, but most structures are either too big for that, or are selectively pumped out of the cell after entering. To get drugs into the cell, it is often required to use a carrier that is capable of transporting contents across the cellular membrane, after which the drug is unloaded. Another novel technology developed by MIT first squeezes the cells by running them through a narrow constriction. That opens up holes in the cellular membrane, allowing free passage of all kinds of molecules.

Obviously, we cannot treat patients this way, as it would be impossible to take all cells out of the body and consequently squeeze them. However, we can take cells and modify their behaviour for all kinds of purposes, such as reprogramming ordinary cells to stem cells. Therefore, the technology developed by MIT is therefore best used in a laboratory setting in which we create artificial cell cultures used for regenerative medicine.

Creating new stem cells for regenerative medicine is exactly what the scientists from MIT that developed the technique tried to achieve. They showed that by squeezing the cells, they were able to deliver compounds with much more efficiency, leading to a higher yield of reprogrammed cells. According to the researchers, their technique helps making stem cells 10-100 times more efficient. However, cellular squeezing may also be used for other purposes, such as providing cells with light-emitting proteins that can be used for imaging.

The video shown below reveals how cells are squeezed through a narrow constriction.

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