Manipulating cells — with a joystick

Biomedical research could someday look a lot like playing video games thanks to a new device that allows users to manipulate cells with the swerve of a joystick.

A team of physicists and engineers at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio developed the device from a tiny piece of square-centimeter silicon inlaid with rows of zigzagging magnetic wires. At each corner, the wire behaves like two magnets pointed north to north or south to south. The fields of the two magnets create a point of strong attraction just above them. A nearby magnetic object, such as a magnetically-tagged cell is attracted to the corner and gets stuck there

To get the particles moving, the researchers then place two magnetic fields around the chip one in the plane of the chip and the other perpendicular to it. By flipping the direction of these fields, the researchers can guide tagged cells along the zigzagging wire and even make them jump from one wire to the next. The researchers computerized the magnetic field switching so that a user steered the cells by simply handling a joystick.

The team at OSU put the device through its paces with magnetically-tagged T-cells, the body’s guardians against infection. They snapped the cells to attention at one end of the chip, marched them down to the other end, and made them hop from one wire to another, reaching speeds of about 20 micron, or about a one-fifth the width of a human hair, per second.

Jeffrey Chalmers, the chemical engineer who tagged the T-cells for the experiment, said that the device would be ideal for examining tumor cells. To study biopsied tumors, researchers often treat them with enzymes, which break them down into their constituent cells. Researchers then separate cancerous cells they want to study from healthy cells like fat and blood.

Lauren Schenkman reports for Inside Science News Service, which is supported by the American Institute of Physics, a not-for-profit publisher of scientific journals.

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