Living 'Microchip' May Revolutionize Genetic Study Of Individual Cells
Similar to efforts to develop quantum computing, scientists from the United States and South Korea say a microchip-like device capable of quickly sorting and storing individual living cells may revolutionize the study of genetics as well as cancer and HIV research.
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Developers at Duke University and Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology printed thin electromagnetic components onto a slide, creating magnetic tracks and elements such as switches, transistors, and diodes. Those materials guided the living cells -- tagged with magnetic particles for easy identification -- through a thin liquid film where they were contained. The end result is an integrated circuit capable of speedily sorting and storing living cells. The rudimentary device moves the magnetized objects in a way similar to how a computer chip manipulates electrons.
"Most experiments grind up a bunch of cells and analyze genetic activity by averaging the population of an entire tissue rather than looking at the differences between single cells within that population," Yellen said in a press statement. "That's like taking the eye color of everyone in a room and finding that the average color is grey, when not a single person in the room has grey eyes. You need to be able to study individual cells to understand and appreciate small but significant differences in a similar population."
The integrated circuit works like a series of small conveyor belts, the researchers say. A localized rotating magnetic field moves the beads and cells along tracks etched into the circuit's substrate. At the same time, built-in switches direct the magnetized objects to storage sites on the chip. The device controls small magnetic objects similar to how memory chips manipulate the electrons supporting computing for anything from Angry Birds to China's NUDT Tianhe-2, the world's fastest supercomputer.
Given the larger scale of living cells to electrons, such chips may hold hundreds of thousands of cells when scaled up, though far short of the billions of electrons modern computer chips sort and store. But Yellen and his Korean partner Cheol Gi Kim say those numbers will work just fine for genetic study using individual living cells.
"You need to analyze thousands of cells to get the statistics necessary to understand which genes are being turned on and off in response to pharmaceuticals or other stimuli," says Yellen. "And if you're looking for cells exhibiting rare behavior, which might be one cell out of a thousand, then you need arrays that can control hundreds of thousands of cells."
Kim says the idea's simplicity is its beauty. "Because it is a system similar to electronics and is based on the same technology, it would be easy to fabricate," he said in the statement. "That makes the system relevant to commercialization."
Among applications for the integrated circuit of living cells, Yellen describes how some cells affected by HIV or cancer lie dormant in the body, essentially hiding from therapeutic drugs hunting them down. But with the new device, the researchers say they may soon watch millions of individual cells, selecting those few rare dormant ones for retrieval and analysis.
"Our technology can offer new tools to improve our basic understanding of cancer metastasis at the single cell level, how cancer cells respond to chemical and physical stimuli, and to test new concepts for gene delivery and metabolite transfer during cell division and growth," Kim says.
The researchers now plan to scale the device up from a 3-by-3 grid to chips holding 8-by-8 or 16-by-16 compartments, capable of hosting thousands of living cells. Aside from helping scientists to better understand the mechanics of HIV and cancer in the body, the new technology may soon impact the world of manufacturing.
The study was published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications.
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