Cell herding made possible with electric fields according to research conducted by UC Berkely-UC San Fransisco students. By applying a charge of 5 volts per centimeter to a single layer of epithelium cells the researchers were able to influence the direction the cells traveled within their solution in between two charged plates. Cells were observed moving away from the positively charged center of the plate towards the negatively charged edges, closely following the pattern of electric field lines as they went. By exerting control over where cells travel it is conceivable that they could be directed to the site of a wound to speed the healing process. The epithelium cells used in the experiment are responsible for forming the tough epithelium tissue that protects the cornea, kidneys, and lines the body cavity.
Researchers observed the cells in real-time under microscopes while they applied the direct current. Enticing cells to move via electrical pulses is a process called galvanotaxis, and was previously accomplished with individual cells but this is the first example of using it on groups. Laying down an electrical field creates a cue to the surrounding cells that changes their behaviour and makes them travel in the indicated direction. Overlaying models of the locations of the field lines matched up with the paths taken by the cells. By manipulating the fields the researchers were able to make the cells form complex shapes, a triceratops and the UC Berkely bear logo. The movement is similar to that of a school of fish, and works on a similar principle of the electrical impulses that allow individual organisms to work closely in a group.
The cell herding made possible with electric fields opens the door to several medical applications. Manipulating electrical field lines within the body may one day be used to direct cells in their efforts to heal a wound and speed up the process. Finely tuned equipment might even detect the change in an organism’s bioelectric field caused by a wound and apply the needed charge automatically, enabling cell herding as an instant fix applied as soon as an injury is detected. This effect was first observed in 1843, this new research may finally have found a way to harness the centuries old discovery. Emil du Bois-Reymond was responsible for conducting that experiment, but he was unable to find a way to make use of the knowledge.
The success of this research has huge potential to change the way wounds and healing in general is approached. Once the necessary adjustments are made to allow for control of more delicate cells, bandages that cover and protect an injury as well as directing cells directly to the most injured areas would soon follow. Galvanotaxis could also be put to use in the artificial growing of skin sheets for grafts or new muscle to replace damaged tissue. Cell herding made possible with electric fields promises to simplify and expedite the soft tissue formation with more accuracy and in a way that is more precise and friendly to the body. Increasing the ability to heal wounds while minimizing scar tissue will also be appreciated by those the technology helps.
By Daniel O’Brien