Researchers at MIT Media Lab have designed a miniature antenna that can operate wirelessly inside a living cell, opening up possibilities for medical diagnosis and treatment and other scientific processes due to the antenna’s potential to monitor and even direct cellular activity in real time.
“The most exciting aspect of this research is that we are able to create cyborgs at the cellular scale,” says Deblina Sarkar, assistant professor and AT&T Career Development Chair at the MIT Media Lab and head of the Nano-Cybernetic Biotrek. Lab. “We are able to merge the versatility of information technology at the cell level, the building blocks of biology.”
An article describing the research was published today in the journal Nature Communication.
The technology, dubbed Cell Rover by the researchers, represents the first demonstration of an antenna that can work inside a cell and is compatible with 3D biological systems. Typical bioelectronic interfaces, Sarkar says, are millimeters or even centimeters in size, and not only are highly invasive, but also don’t provide the resolution needed to wirelessly interact with individual cells, especially as changes in a single cell can affect an entire organism.
The antenna developed by Sarkar’s team is much smaller than a cell. In fact, in the team’s oocyte research, the antenna made up less than 0.05% of the cell volume, putting it well below a size that could encroach on the cell and damage it.
Finding a way to build an antenna of this size to work inside a cell was a major challenge.
Indeed, conventional antennas must have a size comparable to the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves they transmit and receive. These wavelengths are very large – they represent the speed of light divided by the frequency of the wave. At the same time, increasing the frequency to reduce this ratio and antenna size is counterproductive because high frequencies produce heat that is damaging to living tissue.
The antenna developed by the Media Lab researchers converts electromagnetic waves into acoustic waves, whose wavelengths are five orders of magnitude smaller – representing the speed of sound divided by the frequency of the waves – than those of electromagnetic waves.
This conversion of electromagnetic waves into acoustic waves is achieved by making the miniature antennas using a material called magnetostrictive. When a magnetic field is applied to the antenna, powering and activating it, the magnetic domains in the magnetostrictive material align with the field, creating a tension in the material, the way the pieces of metal woven into a piece of fabric could react to a strong magnet, causing the fabric to twist.
When an alternating magnetic field is applied to the antenna, the varying strain and stress (pressure) produced in the material is what creates the acoustic waves in the antenna, explains Baju Joy, a student in Sarkar’s lab and lead author. of this work. “We also developed a new strategy using a non-uniform magnetic field to introduce the rovers into the cells,” adds Joy.
Configured this way, the antenna could be used to explore fundamental principles of biology as natural processes occur, Sarkar says. Instead of destroying cells to examine their cytoplasm as is usually done, the Cell Rover could monitor a cell’s development or division, detect different chemicals and biomolecules such as enzymes, or physical changes such as pressure. cellular, all in real time and in vivo.
According to the researchers, materials such as polymers that undergo mass or stress changes in response to chemical or biomolecular changes – already used in medical and other research – could be incorporated into the operation of the Cell Rover. Such integration could provide information not provided by current observation techniques which involve the destruction of the cell.
With such capabilities, Cell Rovers could be useful in research on cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, for example. As Sarkar explains, the technology could be used to detect and monitor biochemical and electrical changes associated with disease as it progresses in individual cells. Applied in the field of drug discovery, the technology could shed light on the reactions of living cells to different drugs.
Due to the sophistication and scale of nanoelectronic devices such as transistors and switches – “representing five decades of tremendous advancement in information technology”, says Sarkar – the Cell Rover, with its mini antenna , could perform functions up to intracellular computing and information processing for autonomous exploration and modulation of the cell. Research has demonstrated that multiple Cell Rovers can be engaged, even within a single cell, to communicate with each other and outside of cells.
“The Cell Rover is an innovative concept because it can integrate sensing, communication and information technologies inside a living cell,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, Dean of the MIT School of Engineering and Professor Vannevar Bush of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “This opens up unprecedented opportunities for extremely precise diagnostics, therapies and drug discovery, as well as creating a new direction at the intersection between biology and electronic devices.”
The researchers named their intracellular antenna technology Cell Rover to invoke, like that of a Mars rover, its mission of exploring a new frontier.
“You can think of the Cell Rover,” Sarkar says, “as being on an expedition, exploring the inner world of the cell.”
New membrane antenna much smaller than conventional antennas
Baju Joy et al, Cell Rover – a miniaturized magnetostrictive antenna for wireless operation inside living cells, Nature Communication (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-32862-4
Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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