For the first time in history, researchers have fused artificial cells with biological cells in a way that lets them work together. This opens the door for a variety of new possibilities and applications.
Fusing biological and artificial cells
The research team at Imperial College London uses a system that encapsulates biological cells within an artificial cell. Using this approach, the team can harness the ability of biological cells to produce chemicals while offering them protection from the environment.
The potential here is huge and could lead to applications such as the creation of drug factories inside the body, biological sensors that can survive in extreme conditions, and even things like cellular batteries powered by photosynthesis.
There have been previous artificial cell designs in which biological cell components, such as enzymes, are placed into artificial casings. However, this new study takes things one step beyond that and encloses entire cells inside artificial casings .
These artificial cells also contain enzymes that work in unison with the biological cell to produce new chemicals. As a proof-of-concept test, the team had the artificial cell systems produce a fluorescent chemical, which confirmed that things were working as expected.
Bridging the gap between biological and artificial cells
Biological cells can perform highly complex functions but are difficult to control when you need to control one aspect of the cell. Artificial cells can be programmed easily but are limited in their complexity. This new system addresses the issues with both cell types by fusing entire biological cells with artificial ones; this means that the two work in unison to produce the desired outcome. This represents a considerable shift in how artificial cells are designed and could help accelerate research, healthcare and more.
The system was creating using microfluidics and by using water and oil, which do not mix. They were then able to make droplets of a specific size that contained the biological cells and enzymes. The team then applied an artificial protective coating to these droplets to create an artificial cell environment.
To test these artificial cells, they exposed them to a solution high in copper, which is toxic to biological cells. The protected cells confirmed that the majority of these protected cells still produced fluorescent chemicals, showing they were still alive and working inside the protective coating. This system could prove useful in the body, where a protective artificial cell casing could prevent the host immune system from attacking foreign biological cells introduced as a therapy.
The system is customisable and can be highly controlled. It allows the creation of artificial cells in various sizes and is reproducible, making consistent quality and mass production feasible.
The next step is to improve the functionality of these artificial cells by engineering the artificial coating to behave more like a biological membrane with added special functions. For example, the membrane might be designed to open and release chemicals in response to a certain external signal; this could be used to deliver a drug payload to a target area in the body. It might be useful in delivering spot treatments to tumors, only delivering a drug to a tumor site rather than systemically; this would reduce side effects and the amount of drug needed, thus reducing costs.
While systems like this are certainly a while away from mainstream use, this is a promising development. The applications for such artificial cells are huge and are very much a tool that researchers will no doubt be keen to use in the future.
 Elani, Y., Trantidou, T., Wylie, D., Dekker, L., Polizzi, K., Law, R. V., & Ces, O. (2018). Constructing vesicle-based artificial cells with embedded living cells as organelle-like modules. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 4564.