Turning biological cells to stone improves cancer and stem cell research

Photo: Carbonized cell structure

This image shows the complex multiscale structure of a carbonized mouse spleen; ©Sandia National Laboratories

A new technique to transmute living cells into more permanent materials that defy rot and can endure high-powered probes is widening research opportunities for biologists who are developing cancer treatments or tracking stem cell evolution.

The simple, silica-based method also offers materials scientists the ability to "fix" small biological entities like red blood cells into more commercially useful shapes. And, at least in theory, the method can transmute naturally grown objects like livers and spleens from livestock into non-organic "zombie" replicas that function simultaneously at a variety of length-scales, from macro to nano, in more sophisticated ways than the most advanced machinery can produce. "Why go to the trouble of making objects if nature will do it for you?" asks lead investigator Bryan Kaehr, of the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories.

The initial insight came when Kaehr and then-University of New Mexico (UNM) postdoctoral student Jason Townson discovered that the silica slurry they were using had an unexpected property: At a reasonably low pH level, the silica molecules, instead of clotting with each other, bound only to surfaces against which they rested, forming the thinnest of coatings.

Kaehr wondered if a similar coating on biological cells would strengthen cell structures so they could be examined for longer periods with more powerful tools. So the researchers put cultured tissue cells in a silica solution and let the mix harden overnight. Then they raised the temperature to burn off the biomaterial. What remained, astonishingly, were perfectly replicated cells, like little row houses of glass.

But the replicated cells were so sturdy that Kaehr surmised that the slurry must have coated the cells inside as well as out. Breaking a row of cells as one would a tiny pane of glass, the team examined their interiors with an electron microscope. They found they had indeed replicated the nanoscopic organelles of the cell as well as its exterior. They had discovered a way to create a near-perfect silica counterfeit of a biological organism, from its overall shape down to its nanostructures.

This initial result is already being used by biologists in Finland to create three-dimensional models that preserve the different stages of stem cells as they evolve to their final form, said Sandia fellow and paper co-author Jeff Brinker, who is also a UNM professor.

Townson, now on the faculty at UNM, uses the method to research the movements of cancer-fighting nanoparticles inserted into chicken cells prior to their conversion to silica. "With optical microscopy, it is difficult to form an image of the interactions of nanoparticles with cells while preserving a three-dimensional context," he said. Bioreplication, where the sample can be mechanically dissected and investigated with electron microscopes, offers better 3-D resolution at the nanoscale.

COMPAMED.de; Source: Brown University