Cyborg cells with both natural and artificial properties might sound like science fiction. But in a lab in California, such cells have become a reality. By embedding a live bacterial cell with the basic units of an artificial polymer, researchers may have made the cell of the future.
In a study published in Advanced Science, researchers from the University of California, Davis say the hybrid cells combine the function of living cells with the resilience of synthetic materials.
“The cyborg cells are programmable, do not divide, preserve essential cellular activities, and gain non-native abilities,” says Cheemeng Tan, associate professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis and senior author of the paper.
These cells could be used in targeted therapies for everything from cancer to disrupted gut microbiomes.
Creating a cyborg cell
The new approach to creating cyborg cells combines existing techniques to program cells.
Converging artificial and living systems, Tan’s team infused artificial polymers into a bacterial cell. Their recipe? Using ultraviolet light to form a cross-linked hydrogel matrix within the bacterial cell.
Tan added that until now there have been essentially two ways to engineer a cell to carry out novel functions. In the first approach, the living cell DNA is modified to carry out specific functions. However, this technique produces cells that can still reproduce – which not only makes them hard to control but can also lead to the contamination of other biological systems.
The new technique makes these artificial cells with a synthetic membrane. This ensures that the cell does not reproduce and limits it to performing a fixed set of functions.
More resilient than living cells
In lab tests, the cyborg cells were more resistant than living cells to environmental stressors. This includes exposure to hydrogen peroxide, antibiotics and acidic or basic environments.
The researchers also demonstrated how such cells could invade lab-grown cancer cells.
“We are excited about the potential applications of the cyborg cells to solve environmental challenges, diagnose or treat diseases, and modulate disrupted microbiota,” Tan said, adding that the team is now looking into how to control these cyborg cells and study the effect of different matrix materials in the bacterial cells.
This latest work builds on the work of Tan’s lab which is looking to build novel synthetic cells that will be deemed safe to be used for environmental remediation, cancer therapy and antipathogen treatments.