Human cell "membrane on a chip" may help fight coronavirus

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a new cell "membrane on-chip" that they say allows the continuous monitoring of how drugs and infectious agents interact with human cells. The scientists believe that the new human cell membrane on a chip will soon be used to test potential drug candidates to fight COVID-19. Scientists behind the project say that testing of this sort is typically done by the pharmaceutical industry using live cells, but their device offers an easier alternative.The research team, including scientists from the University of Cambridge, Cornell University, and Stanford University, say their device could mimic any cell type from bacterial to human or even mimic the tough cell walls associated with plants. The devices are formed on chips while preserving the orientation and functionality of the cell membrane and have been successfully used to monitor the activity of ion channels.

Ion channels are classic protein in human cells, which are the target of more than 60% of approved pharmaceuticals. The cell membrane plays a central role in biological signaling by controlling everything from pain relief to infection by a virus. The cell membrane is a sort of gatekeeper between the cell and the outside world. The sensor created by the team can preserve all critical aspects of the cell membrane, including structure, fluidity, and control over ion movement without time-consuming steps needed to keep cells alive.

The construction of the device integrates a cell membrane with conducting polymer electrodes and transistors. Researchers at Cornell first optimized the process to produce membranes from living cells and then worked with the team from Cambridge to coax the membranes onto polymeric electrodes.

The hydrated conducting polymers give a more natural environment for cell membranes and allow robust monitoring of membrane function. The resulting device no longer relies on living cells that are often technically challenging to keep alive and require significant attention. They're also able to make measurements over an extended period.