It is already possible a antenna miniature operate within a living cell, thanks to researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The new study, published last week in the journal Nature Communications, indicates that the antenna’s potential is so great that it can direct brain activity in real time. The advance promises to open up possibilities for various medical diagnoses and treatments, such as cancer.
The technological novelty is being called a “cell rover” by researchers, and is compatible with 3D biological systems. Thus, it can be valuable in cancer research and neurodegenerative diseases, for example.
The technology can be used to detect biochemical and electrical changes on the progression of the disease in cells, in addition to mapping the drugs capable of reacting better with the cells studied.
“The most exciting aspect of this research is that we are able to create cyborgs at the cellular scale,” said Deblina Sarkar, assistant professor and chair of career development at the AT&T telephone company at the MIT Media Lab. “We are able to fuse the versatility of information technology at the cell level, which are the building blocks biology”.
Currently, typical bioelectronic interfaces are millimeters or even centimeters in size. Not only are they highly invasive, they also don’t provide the resolution needed to interact with single cells wirelessly — especially considering that changes in one cell can affect an entire organism.
The newly developed antenna, however, is much smaller than a cell — it represented less than 0.05% of the cell volume, that is, well below a size that would damage the cell. But creating something so specific was indeed a challenge.
How were they developed?
Conventional antennas need to be comparable in size to the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves that transmit and receive data — which are often very large. Increasing the frequency to reduce the wavelength ratio is counterproductive as it can compromise living tissue.
Therein lies the differential of the new antennas. They convert electromagnetic waves into acoustic waves, whose wavelengths are five orders of magnitude shorter than those of electromagnetic waves. This conversion is done using a “magnetostrictive” material, that is, one that changes its shape or dimensions during magnetization.
“When an alternating magnetic field is applied to the antenna, the tension and stress produced in the material create the acoustic waves in the antenna,” says Baju Joy, a student in Sarkar’s lab and lead author of this work.
Configured this way, the antenna could be used to explore the fundamentals of biology as natural processes take place in the body. Instead of destroying cells to examine their cytoplasm, as is normally done, the cell rover could monitor a cell’s development or division, detecting different chemicals and biomolecules, such as enzymes, or physical changes, such as in cell pressure.
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