Semi-living 'cyborg cells' could treat cancer, suggests new study

These "cyborg cells" offer new possibilities for health and environmental issues.
Nergis Firtina
UC Davis biomedical engineers have created semi-living “cyborg cells” that have many of the capabilities of living cells but are unable to divide and grow.
UC Davis biomedical engineers have created semi-living “cyborg cells” that have many of the capabilities of living cells but are unable to divide and grow.

UC Davis 

"Synthetic biology aims to engineer cells that can carry out novel functions," says the University of California, Davis. Regarding this statement, UC Davis biomedical engineers have created semi-living "cyborg cells."

As stated in the institutional press release, the cyborg cells, which have the capabilities of living cells but are unable to replicate, could have a wide range of applications, from producing therapeutic drugs to cleaning up pollution.

According to Cheemeng Tan, senior author of the study and associate professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis, there are two methods in use. One is to take a bacterial cell already alive and modify its DNA by adding new genes that give it new capabilities. The alternative is to build an artificial cell from scratch using biomolecules and a synthetic membrane.

Time for the third approach

Tan and the UC Davis researchers developed a third approach. They injected the building blocks of an artificial polymer into living bacterial cells. Once within the cell, UV light exposure caused the polymer to cross-link into a hydrogel matrix. Although the cells could continue to function biologically, they could not divide.

Semi-living 'cyborg cells' could treat cancer, suggests new study
3D living cell.

"The cyborg cells are programmable, do not divide, preserve essential cellular activities, and gain nonnative abilities," Tan said.

Researchers discovered that the cyborg cells were more resilient to stresses that would normally kill normal cells, such as exposure to hydrogen peroxide, antibiotics, or high pH. In the end, they were able to modify the cells so that they could infiltrate laboratory-grown cancer cells.

The research will be continued

The team is conducting an additional study on the creation and control of cyborg cells and the effects of various matrix materials. Additionally, they want to investigate how they may be used for various purposes, from addressing environmental issues to identifying and treating diseases.

"Finally, we are interested in the bioethics of applying cyborg cells as they are cell-derived biomaterials that are neither cells nor materials," Tan said.

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The study was published in Advanced Science on January 11. The procedure has been the subject of a provisional patent application. The National Institutes of Health provided money to help fund some of the research.

Study abstract:

Natural and artificial cells are two common chassis in synthetic biology. Natural cells can perform complex tasks through synthetic genetic constructs, but their autonomous replication often causes safety concerns for biomedical applications. In contrast, artificial cells based on nonreplicating materials, albeit possessing reduced biochemical complexity, provide more defined and controllable functions. Here, for the first time, the authors create hybrid material-cell entities termed Cyborg Cells. To create Cyborg Cells, a synthetic polymer network is assembled inside each bacterium, rendering them incapable of dividing. Cyborg Cells preserve essential functions, including cellular metabolism, motility, protein synthesis, and compatibility with genetic circuits. Cyborg Cells also acquire new abilities to resist stressors that otherwise kill natural cells. Finally, the authors demonstrate the therapeutic potential by showing invasion into cancer cells. This work establishes a new paradigm in cellular bioengineering by exploiting a combination of intracellular man-made polymers and their interaction with the protein networks of living cells.

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