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

Researchers at MIT Media Lab have designed a miniature antenna that can operate wirelessly inside a living cell, opening up possibilities in medical diagnosis, treatment, and other scientific processes due to the antenna’s ability to monitor and even direct 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 Diplina Sarkar, associate professor and chair of AT&T career development at MIT Media Lab and head of the Nano-Cybernetic Biotrek Laboratory. “We are able to integrate the diversity of IT at the cellular level, which are the building blocks of biology.”

a paper describing research It was published today in the magazine Nature Connections.

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

The antenna that Sarkar’s team developed is much smaller than a cell. In fact, in the team’s research on egg cells, the antennae represented less than 0.05 percent of the cell’s volume, making it far less than the size that would parasitize and damage the cell.

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

This is because conventional antennas must be comparable in size to the wavelength 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 higher frequencies produce heat harmful to living tissue.

The antenna, developed by Media Lab researchers, converts electromagnetic waves into sound waves, the wavelengths of which are five times smaller—the speed of sound divided by the wave frequency—than electromagnetic waves.

This conversion from electromagnetic waves to sound waves is achieved by fabricating miniature antennas using a material referred to as magnetostriction. When a magnetic field is applied to the antenna, it turns on and energizes, the magnetic fields within the magnetically entrapped material align with the field, creating stress in the material, the way metal pieces woven into a piece of cloth can interact with a strong magnet, causing the cloth to be distort it.

When an alternating magnetic field is applied to the antenna, the resulting variable stress and pressure in the material is what creates the sound waves in the antenna, says Paju Joy, a student in Sarkar’s lab and lead author of this work. “We also developed a new strategy using a non-uniform magnetic field to introduce roving compounds into cells,” adds Joy.

Configured in this way, Sarkar says, the antenna can be used to explore the basics of biology while natural processes are occurring. Instead of destroying cells to check their cytoplasm as usual, the Cell Rover can monitor cell development or division, detecting various chemicals and biomolecules such as enzymes, or physical changes such as cell stress – all in real time and in vivo.

Materials such as polymers that undergo changes in mass or stress in response to chemical or biomolecular changes — already used in medical and other research — could be combined with the operation of the Cell Rover, according to the researchers. This integration could provide insights that current monitoring techniques involving cell destruction do not provide.

With these capabilities, Cell Rovers could be of value in cancer and neurodegenerative disease research, for example. As Sarkar explains, this technology can be used to detect and monitor the biochemical and electrical changes associated with a disease over its progression in individual cells. This technique, applied in the field of drug discovery, can shed light on the reactions of living cells to various drugs.

Due to the sophistication and range of nanoelectronic devices such as transistors and switches — “representing five decades of tremendous advances in information technology,” Sarkar says — the Cell Rover, with its tiny antenna, can perform functions ranging all the way to intracellular computing and information processing for exploration. The cell’s self-modification. The research shows that multiple Cell Rovers can be engaged, even within a single cell, to communicate with each other and out of cells.

Says Anantha B. “This opens up unprecedented opportunities for highly accurate diagnostics, therapeutics, and drug discovery, as well as creating a new direction at the intersection between biology and electronic devices.”

The researchers named the intracellular antenna technology the Cell Rover to invoke its mission, like the Mars rover, to explore new frontiers.

“You can think of the roving cell as being on an expedition to explore the inner world of the cell,” Sarkar says.