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A new study of living cells could revolutionize the way we test drugs

Researchers have made a breakthrough by detecting the electrical equivalent of a living cells last gasp. The work takes them a step closer to both seeing the heartbeat of a living cell and a new way to test drugs.

To stay alive, individual biological cells must transfer electrically charged particles, called ions across their cell membranes. This flow produces an electrical current that could, in principle, be detected with sensitive enough equipment. The recognition of such electrical activity would provide a kind of cellular cardiogram, allowing the daily functioning of the cell to be monitored in a similar way to a cardiograph showing the workings of a human heart.

With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Professor Andre Geim at the University of Manchester and his team have set out to make the first measurement of a cellular heartbeat.

"Once we know the average or usual pattern of electrical activity in a cell, we can see how different drugs affect it," says Professor Geim. This would put an early safeguard into the system that could be applied long before the drug was tested on animals or even humans. In addition, the electrical activity test could be used to monitor the effects of pollution on naturally occurring micro-organisms in the environment.

To detect a cells normal activity, Andre Geim and fellow researchers modified apparatus used originally to detect weak magnetic fields in superconductors*. Unfortunately, these modifications reduced the sensitivity of the technique, and the normal activity of the yeast cell could not be detected. This is the first time such a technique has been used on a living cell.

Not to be defeated, the researchers went about livening things up. They chose to invoke what any self-respecting party-goer would: alcohol. "We added ethanol which is essentially vodka to provoke a response from the cell. Ethanol is known to increase the tr
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Contact: Natasha Richardson
natasha.richardson@epsrc.ac.uk
44-017-934-44404
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
11-Apr-2007


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