TINY nanostraws that sample the contents of a cell without destroying it could improve our understanding of chemical processes on the cellular scale and help researchers develop new medical treatments.
Researchers at Stanford University in the US have developed a system that pierces cells using hollow metal-oxide nanotubes that are 600 times smaller than a strand of hair – but crucially the technique does not kill the cells. This is the drawback of existing techniques which must rupture and destroy the cell to get at its contents.
“What we hope to do, using this technology, is to watch as these cells change over time and be able to infer how different environmental conditions and ‘chemical cocktails’ influence their development,” said Nicholas Melosh, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford.
Melosh believes that the technique will significantly impact our understanding of cell development and could lead to much safer and effective medical therapies.
For example, if researchers can monitor and learn how stem cells develop they can influence it and this may help those seeking to use stem cells to grow patient-specific organs.
“For stem cells, we know that they can turn into many other cell types, but we do not know the evolution – how do they go from stem cells to, say, cardiac cells? There is always a mystery. This sampling technique will give us a clearer idea of how it’s done,” said co-researcher Yuhong Cao.
The sampling technique could also solve mysteries around why some cancer cells are resistant to chemotherapy.
“With chemotherapy, there are always cells that are resistant,” said Cao. “If we can follow the intercellular mechanism of the surviving cells, we can know, genetically, its response to the drug.”
The technology has been developed out of efforts to create a non-destructive technique for delivering substances into cells. The team says that a series of tests, including comparing the results of its method with the existing technique of breaking apart cells, indicates that their sampling is accurate and reliable.
The team wants to use the method to provide a sampling platform that any lab can build.
“We want as many people to use this technology as possible,” Melosh said, adding: “We’re trying to help advance science and technology to benefit mankind.”
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