Biomedical engineers at the University of California, Davis, have created semi-living “cyborg cells” which can be used to manufacture therapeutic drugs, improve treatments for diseases like cancer and reduce pollution through targeted chemical processes, among other uses.
According to the paper published in Advanced Science on January 11, the cells retain the capabilities of living cells but are unable to replicate.
“Synthetic biology aims to engineer cells that can carry out novel functions. There are essentially two approaches in use. One is to take a living bacterial cell and remodel its DNA with new genes that give it new functions. The other is to create an artificial cell from scratch, with a synthetic membrane and biomolecules,” said the associate professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis and senior author of the paper, Cheemeng Tan.
Additional co-authors on the paper are: Luis Contreras-Llano, Conary Meyer, Ofelya Baghdasaryan, Shahid Khan, and Aijun Wang, UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering; Tanner Henson, UC Davis Department of Surgery; Yu-Han Liu, Chi-Long Lin, Che-Ming J. Hu, Academia Sinica, Taiwan.
According to a press release on the varsity’s website, “The first approach, an engineered living cell, has great flexibility but is also able to reproduce itself, which may not be desirable. A completely artificial cell cannot reproduce but is less complex and only capable of a limited range of tasks.”
The paper noted that the engineers came up with a third approach wherethey infused living bacterial cells with the basic units of an artificial polymer.
Once inside the cell, the polymer was cross-linked into a hydrogel matrix by exposure to ultraviolet light. The cells could maintain their biological activity but could not reproduce.
“The cyborg cells are programmable, do not divide, preserve essential cellular activities, and gain nonnative abilities,” Prof Tan said about the work that was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The press release noted that the scientists concluded that the cyborg cells were more resistant to stressors that would kill normal cells, such as exposure to hydrogen peroxide, antibiotics, or high pH.
These cells were also engineered to invade cancer cells grown in the lab.