Science & Technology

Human cell ‘membrane on a chip’ can fast track COVID-19 drug testing

The research aims to know how SARS-CoV-2 virus attacks human cell membranes and how it can be blocked

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 07 July 2020

Researchers have developed a human cell 'membrane on a chip' that allows monitoring of how drugs interact with human cells, and may soon be used to test potential drug candidates for COVID-19. Photo: Susan Daniel / Cornell University

Drug testing in the race to find cure for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is keeping the scientific community on its toes. In the middle of every-day developments targeted at looking at treatment and testing, a group of scientists have developed a human cell “membrane on a chip” that can keep track of how infectious agents and cells interact.

The researchers from three universities — University of Cambridge, Cornell University and Stanford University — said the research was to understand:

  • How SARS-CoV-2 virus attacks human cell membranes
  • How it can be blocked

Cell membranes shield the cell interior from the outside world: They help in biological signalling and acts as a barrier keeping the constituents of the cell in and unwanted substances out.

The results were published in two recent papers in Langmuir and ACS Nano.

How does the device work?

The device has the same structure and function as a normal cell membrane, but it doesn’t need to be kept alive like a cell does.

It uses an electronic chip to understand how the cell interacts with the outside world — the chip records activity of the cell membrane using optical and electrical recording methods. This way, scientists can make note of changes in membrane properties in response to outside therapies and drug treatments over a time.

This way the device can make it safer for researchers to study SARS-CoV-2 virus.

As the pandemic entered a critical stage March onwards, several doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff globally were infected with the virus. As a result, the healthcare infrastructure, even in the most flourishing economies such as that of the United States, has been stretched thin. At least 90,000 health-care workers worldwide were infected with the virus till May 2020, according to most recent data by International Council of Nurses.  

“Because the membranes are produced from human cells, it’s like having a biopsy of that cell’s surface. We have all the material that would be present including proteins and lipids, but none of the challenges of using live cells,” University of Cambridge quoted Susan Daniel, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell, as saying.

The most significant aspect of the device is that it prevents scientists in coming in contact with risky environment, said co-author and Cornell researcher Han-Yuan Liu.

According to scientists, the virus membranes that will be fused with the chip will be identical to the SARS-CoV-2 membrane. This way, the scientists will examine how the drugs act against the virus spikes upon gain entry into the host cell.

Stanford researcher Alberto Salleo said the project merged ideas and concepts from laboratories in the United Kingdom, California and New York. The device was an example of integration of biology and materials science, he added.

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