Scientists Reprogram Cells to Carry out Functions inside the Body

The Stanford University researchers reprogram cells to use synthetic materials to carry out these functions.
Fabienne Lang
Worker cellsElla Maru Studio and Yoon Seak Kim/Jia Lui, Deisseroth/Bao Laboratories, Stanford University

A team of Stanford University researchers has developed a method that is able to reprogram cells to use synthetic materials, provided by the researchers, to create artificial structures that can carry out functions inside the body. 

Their work could prove useful for improving the lives of people living with autism and epilepsy, as well as multiple sclerosis.

Their findings were published in Science on Friday.


Cells become chemical engineers

"We turned cells into chemical engineers of a sort, that use materials we provide to construct functional polymers that change their behaviors in specific ways," said Karl Deisseroth, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and co-author of the study. 

The researchers developed genetically targeted chemical assembly (GTCA) and used this to build artificial structures on mammalian brain cells and on neurons in the little worm, C. elegans.

The structures were made with two different biocompatible materials, with different electronic properties. One was an insulator while the other was a conductor. 

Co-author of the study, Zhenan Bao, professor and chair of chemical engineering at Stanford University, explained that even though the team focused on brain cells or neurons for their experiment, that "We’ve developed a technology platform that can tap into the biochemical processes of cells throughout the body."

The researchers were able to create artificial nets that had either insulative or conductive properties around the neurons they were targeting. Then, these polymers changed the properties of these neurons. Depending on each polymer, the neurons could be changed to fire more quickly or more slowly. For instance, in the C. elegans, the worms' crawling movements were able to be altered in opposite ways. 

The team highlight that what they have developed "are tools for exploration", as Deisseroth explained, rather than a medical application.

These tools, however, could be used to study how multiple sclerosis, which is caused by the fraying of myelin insulation around nerves, may respond if the diseased cells could be wrapped with these polymers as replacements. Furthermore, further exploration could also be carried out by placing these polymers atop misfiring neurons in autism or epilepsy, which could help to modify these situations. 

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