While in previous experiments, artificial materials were made to interact with a variety of individual parts of biological cells, such as enzymes crucial for chemical reactions, a team of researchers from the new FABRICELL centre at the Imperial College London (ICL) had recently gone a step further.
In a new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers document the process of using microfluidics to encapsulate entire cells in artificial casings, resulting in a well-behaved “cyborg” system capable of withstanding the harsh environs of the body.
To see whether the system functions as intended, the ICL team managed to nudge it to produce a fluorescent chemical while submerged in a medium rich in copper, which is highly toxic to biological cells, thereby proving that the system can remain operational despite inhospitable conditions.
In the future, similar approaches could be used to produce drugs inside of the body and manufacture photosynthesis-powered cellular “batteries” and ultra-durable biological sensors.
Currently, bio-engineers face a two-fold problem – biological cells, known for their extremely complex functionality, are difficult to program to perform a specific function, while artificial cells are much easier to program, but lack in sophistication.
According to lead author on the paper Oscar Ces from the Department of Chemistry at ICL, the new experimental findings prove that both types of cells can — and do — work together.
“This is a paradigm shift in thinking about the way we design artificial cells, which will help accelerate research on applications in healthcare and beyond”, said Ces.
First author on the study Dr Yuval Elani claimed the process allows for the manufacture of cells of different sizes and containing any number of different types of cell machinery, such as chloroplasts for photosynthesis and engineered microbes that could function like biological sensors.
The next step for the team will be to figure out how to make the artificial coating act more like a membrane, which could very well bring the highly sought-after breakthrough in attempts to devise a system for the targeted delivery of drugs within the body.