Biological Samples Are Difficult to Keep Alive; See How a Cell Membrane on a Chip Could Prove an Effective Solution

The study of biological samples has led to remarkable advances in disease prevention, genetic discovery, pharmaceutical development, and more. However, biological samples are notoriously difficult to preserve, both before and after research has concluded. Factors like temperature, UV exposure, chemical exposure, and movement can lead to the deterioration of a cell membrane or the death of a live cell culture. Unfortunately, research on samples that have undergone physical or chemical changes during shipping or storage can produce skewed or incorrect results.

Researchers at Cambridge, Cornell, and Stanford universities have collaborated to build a device capable of mimicking live cell types without the risk of cell death and sample compromise. 

The Role of Cell Membranes

Some of the most critical research taking place in laboratories around the world involves the human cell. In particular, the cell membrane—the site of all interactions between the cell itself and the surrounding environment—is a critical research target. For example, the cell membrane enables the cell to participate in biological signaling, allowing surface proteins to bind with various compounds. 

The cell membrane is the site of ion channels—a type of surface protein that allows charged ionic compounds to pass in and out of the cell. Because they act as a gateway to the cell’s interior, ion channels are frequent pharmaceutical targets. As a result, a large percentage of drugs depend on interactions with ion channels. 

Solving the Fragility Problem

Cell membranes are a critical research target for exploring how viruses like SARS-CoV-2 interact with the human cell. Unfortunately, cell membranes are also very delicate, making sample storage and preservation an enormous challenge. To help alleviate these challenges, researchers from Stanford, Cambridge, and Cornell have developed a human cell membrane on an electronic chip. 

To do this, the team created a test environment that featured each of the most critical functions of the cell membrane, including cell interactions, ion movement in and out of a cell, and the membrane’s overall structure. Then, using a newly created process to extract membranes from live samples, researchers isolated cell membranes and overlaid them onto an electronic chip that housed polymeric electrodes and transistors. These electrodes were then hydrated, creating a more natural “cell-like” environment to promote the preservation of the membranes. 

This process preserved the cell membranes’ structure and functions and allowed researchers to closely monitor the changes on the membrane using electronic sensors. Without having to consider a living sample, research can take place over much longer periods of time without worrying about sample integrity. These cell membranes can also be used for high-throughput screening, allowing pharmaceutical and other researchers to eliminate false positives before proceeding with further development.

Future Implications

As researchers at all three universities continue to develop this technology, it has become more in-demand than ever, particularly with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers can replicate the properties of the SARS-CoV-2 membrane without its contagious elements, allowing ongoing, safe research without risk of infection. Amid insights regarding how to scale production of the devices and automate integrating the membrane and the electronic chip, the cell membrane on a chip is proving to be a viable way to perform extensive research on a growing number of disease processes at a lower risk. With less focus on the time-consuming task of keeping cell samples alive and more opportunities to perform critical research, clinical studies can be more productive than ever before.