Thanks to a complex chemical process, scientists were able to develop versatile synthetic “cyborg” cells in the laboratory. They share many characteristics of living cells while lacking the ability to divide and grow.
This non-replicating part is important. For artificial cells to be useful, they must be carefully controlled, and this cannot happen as easily if they spread in the same way as real cells.
The researchers behind this new development believe these cyborgs could have a wide variety of applications, from improving treatments for diseases like cancer to cleaning up pollution through targeted chemical processes.
“Cyborg cells are programmable, do not divide, preserve essential cellular activities, and acquire non-native abilities,” says biomedical engineer Cheemeng Tan from the University of California, Davis.
Cell engineering currently relies on two key approaches: genetically remodeling existing cells to give them new functions (more flexible but also able to reproduce) and building synthetic cells from scratch (which cannot replicate but have limited biological functions).
These cyborg cells are the result of a new third strategy. The researchers took bacterial cells as the basis and added elements of an artificial polymer. Once inside the cell, the polymer was exposed to ultraviolet light to transform it into a hydrogel matrix by cross-linking, mimicking a natural extracellular matrix.
Although able to maintain much of their normal biological functions, these cyborg cells were found to be more resistant to stressors like high pH and exposure to antibiotics – stressors that would kill normal cells. Just like real cyborgs, they are tough.
“Cyborg cells preserve essential functions, including cellular metabolism, motility, protein synthesis, and compatibility with genetic circuitry,” the researchers write in their published paper.
Laboratory tests on tissue samples showed that the newly grown cells were able to invade cancer cells, highlighting the potential of these modified biological building blocks for later health treatments – they could one day be used to deliver drugs to very specific parts of the body. body.
It’s still a long way off, however promising these initial results may be. The researchers say they now want to experiment with using different materials to create these cells, as well as studying how they might be used.
It is also unclear exactly what prevents cells from replicating, which needs to be determined. The authors believe that the hydrogel matrix can arrest cell division by inhibiting cell growth or DNA replication, or both.
The blend of the natural and the artificial demonstrated here takes in some ways the best elements of both, opening up new possibilities – a state of “quasi vita” or “almost life,” as the researchers put it.
“We are interested in the bioethics of applying cyborg cells because they are cell-derived biomaterials that are neither cells nor materials,” says Tan.
The research has been published in Advanced sciences.