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Jul 26, 2019

Listening to the whispers of individual cells

Posted by in categories: biotech/medical, neuroscience

For the cells in our bodies to function as a unit, they must communicate with one another constantly. They secrete signalling molecules—ions, proteins and nucleic acids—that are picked up by adjacent cells, which in turn pass on the signal to other cells. Our muscles, digestive system and brain are only able to function thanks to this type of communication. And this is the only way in which our immune system can recognise pathogens or infected cells and react accordingly—again, by sending out signals to mobilise the immune defences. If something goes wrong with this signalling between cells, it can lead to diseases such as cancer or autoimmune disorders. “This is why it is important to research which signals the cells send out in which situations,” says Morteza Aramesh. The biophysicist, who works in the Laboratory of Biosensors and Bioelectronics at ETH Zurich, has developed a new method that does precisely that: it listens to communication between individual cells.

An innovative nanosensor

Although it has been possible to measure these signals in the past, it could only be done for entire populations of hundreds or thousands of . The methods were not sensitive enough to use on , meaning that the signalling molecules from individual cells were submerged into the average of the total cell population: “It was impossible to detect differences between cells in order to identify diseased cells, for instance,” says Aramesh.

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