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Cell Rover: Exploring and augmenting the inner world of the cell | MIT news

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Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have designed a miniature antenna that can work wirelessly inside a living cell, opening up possibilities in medical diagnosis and treatment and other scientific processes because of the antennas’ potential for monitoring and even directing cellular activity. in real time.

The most exciting aspect of this research is that we are able to create cyborgs on a cellular scale, says Deblina Sarkar, assistant professor and chair of AT&T Career Development at the MIT Media Lab and director of the Biotrek Nano-Cybernetic Laboratory. We are able to bring together the versatility of information technology at the cellular level, the building blocks of biology.

or letter describing the research is published today in the magazine Nature Communications.

The technology, called the Cell Rover by the researchers, represents the first demonstration of an antenna that can function inside a cell and is compatible with 3D biological systems. Typical bioelectronic interfaces, says Sarkar, are millimeters or even centimeters in size and are not only too invasive, but also fail to provide the resolution needed to interact with single cells wirelessly, especially given that changes in even a cell can affect an entire organism.

The antenna developed by the Sarkars team is much smaller than a cell. In fact, in research teams with egg cells, the antenna represented less than 0.05 percent of the cell’s volume, placing it well below a size that would interfere with and damage the cell.

Finding a way to build an antenna that size to work inside a cell was a major challenge.

This is because conventional antennas must be comparable in size to the wavelengths of the electromagnetic waves they transmit and receive. These wavelengths are very large, they represent the speed of light divided by the frequency of the wave. At the same time, increasing the frequency to reduce that ratio and antenna size is counterproductive because high frequencies produce heat that damages living tissue.

The antenna developed by Media Lab researchers converts electromagnetic waves into acoustic waves, the wavelengths of which are five orders of magnitude smaller representing the speed of sound divided by the frequency of the wave than those of electromagnetic waves.

This conversion from electromagnetic to acoustic waves is accomplished by fabricating miniature antennas using a material called magnetostrictive. When a magnetic field is applied to the antenna, energizing and activating it, the magnetic domains within the magnetostrictive material align with the field, creating strain in the material, the way metal pieces woven into a piece of cloth might react to a strong magnet. causing the cloth to warp.

When an alternating magnetic field is applied to the antenna, the different strain and stress (pressure) produced in the material is what creates the acoustic waves in the antenna, says Baju Joy, a student in Sarkar’s lab and lead author of the work. “We have also developed a new strategy using a non-uniform magnetic field to get the rovers into cells,” adds Joy.

Configured in this way, the antenna can be used to explore the basics of biology as natural processes occur, says Sarkar. Instead of destroying cells to examine their cytoplasm as is usually done, the Cell Rover can monitor a cell’s development or division, detecting various chemicals and biomolecules such as enzymes, or physical changes such as cell pressure, all in real time and in vivo.

Materials such as polymers that undergo change in mass or stress in response to chemical or biomolecular changes already used in medical and other research could be integrated with the Cell Rover’s operation, according to the researchers. Such integration may provide insights not provided by current observational techniques involving cell disruption.

With such capabilities, Cell Rovers could be valuable in researching cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, for example. As Sarkar explains, the technology can be used to detect and monitor biochemical and electrical changes associated with disease as it progresses in individual cells. Applied to the field of drug discovery, the technology can illuminate the responses of living cells to various drugs.

Because of the sophistication and scale of nanoelectronic devices such as transistors and switches that represent five decades of remarkable advances in information technology, Sarkar says the Cell Rover, with its mini antenna, can perform functions ranging from intracellular computing and information processing for cell autonomous exploration and modulation. The research showed that many cells can be engaged, even within a single cell, to communicate with each other and outside the cells.

The Cell Rover is an innovative concept because it can embed sensing, communication and information technology inside a living cell, says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. This opens up unprecedented opportunities for extremely accurate diagnostics, therapeutics and drug discovery, as well as creating a new direction at the intersection between biology and electronics.

The researchers named their intercellular antenna technology Cell Rover to invoke, like that of a Mars rover, its mission to explore a new frontier.

You can think of the Cell Rover, says Sarkar, as an expedition, exploring the inner world of the cell.

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