Device That Measures Cell Strength Could Identify Drugs for Asthma, Hypertension and Muscular Dystrophy

Source: University of California, Los Angeles

Summary: Engineers, doctors and scientists together have developed a tool that measures the physical strength of individual cells 100 times faster than current technologies.

Cells use physical force for essential biological functions, both as individual cells – in cell division or immune function, and as large groups of cells in tissue like when muscles contract. Disruptions in a cell’s ability to control the levels of force they exert can lead to diseases or loss of important bodily functions. For example, asthma is caused by the smooth muscle cells that line the airways squeezing more than normal and abnormally weak cell forces are associated with heart failure, muscular dystrophy and migraine headaches. Engineers, doctors and scientists from the UCLA and Rutgers University together have developed a tool that measures the physical strength of individual cells 100 times faster than current technologies. The new device could make it easier and faster to test and evaluate new drugs for diseases associated with abnormal levels of cell strength, including hypertension, asthma and muscular dystrophy. The study findings were published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Fluorescently labeled elastomeric contractible surfaces

The device’s key component is a flexible plate with more than 100,000 uniformly spaced X-shaped micropatterns of proteins that cells can adhere to. Credit: UCLA

The device is called fluorescently labeled elastomeric contractible surfaces, or FLECS. Its key component is a flexible rectangular plate with more than 100,000 uniformly spaced X-shaped micropatterns of proteins that are sticky so cells settle on and attach to them. The X’s embedded in the plate are elastic, so they shrink when the cells contract. The X’s are made fluorescent with a molecular marker to enable imaging and quantification of how much the shapes shrink. Current standard methods require human technicians to prepare samples and analyze data, so it can take hours to produce the results for just a few cells. But this new approach automates the analysis of the results, which ensures that the evaluation of the strength of thousands and thousands of cells across hundreds of conditions happens in minutes. It could also open new avenues for biological research into cell force.

Prof. Robert Damoiseaux said, “We now are able to screen directly for drugs that work on a cell’s ability to contract—drugs that could be used to treat conditions like asthma and stroke.” and further added, “This finding has strong implications for safety evaluations of current drugs where unintended contraction of cells may lead to adverse reactions in patients.”

More Information: Ivan Pushkarsky et al, “Elastomeric sensor surfaces for high-throughput single-cell force cytometry”, Nature Biomedical Engineering (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41551-018-0193-2

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