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MIT device draws cells close -- but not too close -- together

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--In a popular children's game participants stand as close as possible without touching. But on a microscopic level, coaxing cells to be very, very close without actually touching one another has been among the most frustrating challenges for cell biologists.

Now MIT researchers led by Sangeeta Bhatia, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) and Brigham and Women's Hospital, have solved the problem with a novel device. The work promises to allow researchers to perform cellular experiments that were previously impossible.

Bhatia and HST postdoctoral associate Elliot Hui describe the device in the March 27 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hui is first author of the paper.

The new device, a microelectromechanical system (MEMS), allows biologists to physically arrange cells to be either touching, close but not touching, or completely separated from one another. Further, they can change that configuration at will. And the device works without the use of tools such as the microscopes or robotic control arms typically required by MEMS devices.

Because cells communicate via signals transmitted both through the touching of cell membranes and through soluble molecules that flow between separated cells, biologists need to vary the spacing of cells to study their interactions. Also, since some signals induce a cell to change its internal programming, it is important for biologists to be able to rearrange cells over time to learn which signals spur change and which don't.

In the past, researchers erected chemical "moats" around cells in an attempt to keep them close but separate. Over time, however, cells invariably breech the divide. "They are very good at crossing the moat," said Bhatia, who performed several such experiments in graduate school.

Bhatia and Hui's first
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
29-Mar-2007


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