Cell ‘membrane on a chip’ could speed up screening of drug candidates for COVID-19

  Schematic of membrane on a chip device  Credit: Susan Daniel/Cornell University

Researchers have developed a human cell ‘membrane on a chip’ that allows continuous monitoring of how drugs and infectious agents interact with our cells, and may soon be used to test potential drug candidates for COVID-19.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, Cornell University and Stanford University, say their device could mimic any cell type--bacterial, human or even the tough cells walls of plants. Their research recently pivoted to how COVID-19 attacks human cell membranes and, more importantly, how it can be blocked.

The devices have been 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, a class of protein in human cells which are the target of more than 60% of approved pharmaceuticals. The results are published in two recent papers in Langmuir and ACS Nano.

Cell membranes play a central role in biological signalling, controlling everything from pain relief to infection by a virus, acting as the gatekeeper between a cell and the outside world. The team set out to create a sensor that preserves all of the critical aspects of a cell membrane—structure, fluidity, and control over ion movement—without the time-consuming steps needed to keep a cell alive.

The device uses an electronic chip to measure any changes in an overlying membrane extracted from a cell, enabling the scientists to safely and easily understand how the cell interacts with the outside world.

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Image: Schematic of membrane on a chip device

Credit: Susan Daniel/Cornell University

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)