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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 [1].

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.

Conclusion

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.

Literature

[1] 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.

About the author

Steve Hill

Steve serves on the LEAF Board of Directors and is the Editor in Chief, coordinating the daily news articles and social media content of the organization. He is an active journalist in the aging research and biotechnology field and has to date written over 500 articles on the topic as well as attending various medical industry conferences. In 2019 he was listed in the top 100 journalists covering biomedicine and longevity research in the industry report – Top-100 Journalists covering advanced biomedicine and longevity created by the Aging Analytics Agency. His work has been featured in H+ magazine, Psychology Today, Singularity Weblog, Standpoint Magazine, and, Keep me Prime, and New Economy Magazine. Steve has a background in project management and administration which has helped him to build a united team for effective fundraising and content creation, while his additional knowledge of biology and statistical data analysis allows him to carefully assess and coordinate the scientific groups involved in the project. In 2015 he led the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP) for the International Longevity Alliance and in 2016 helped the team of the SENS Research Foundation to reach their goal for the OncoSENS campaign for cancer research.
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