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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Academics & Research

Physics professors’ research examines cells without destroying them

Affirming their position at the forefront of research and technology, University of Houston researchers have developed a groundbreaking new method for extracting molecules from live cells without disrupting cell development.

Led by Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair professor of physics and principal investigator at the UH Center for Superconductivity, this research will allow doctors to examine cells without destroying them, providing a more efficient method of diagnosing cancer and other diseases and examine the cell’s changes over time.

“Before this research, for doctors to look at the cell they would open it, and basically destroy that cell. That method of diagnosing could not be continuous,” Ren said. “But our way is to send in magnetized carbon nanotubes to the cell, and then we would have a way to get it out in order to carry the information to the cell.”

Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson chair professor of physics and principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity, was recruited to UH from Boston College in 2012 and is being honored with the 2014 Edith and Peter O'Donell Award in Science.

Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson Chair professor of physics and principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity. | Courtesy of UH Media

Throughout this process, Ren’s research has been aided from Paul Chu, TLL Temple Chair of Science and founding director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity, Xiaoliu Zhang, a cancer researcher with the UH Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, and assistant professor of physics Dong Cai.

“The bulk of the work was down in my lab here in the Superconductivity Center, and there are some collaborations of course with Paul Chu’s group and Professor Xiaoliu Zhang’s group. Different groups contributed differently but the majority of work was done here in my group by Dong Cai and the graduate students,” said Ren.

All contributing parts of the research were able to work in sync, using magnetized carbon nanotubes to extract biomolecules from live cells and preserve the lives of the cells examined.

“People have used Carbon Nanotubes for many different pieces or research but we are using this specific method in a life science study to look into the cells and the materiel inside of the cells, and our method is the first one to do it since 2005,” Chu said. “This method pinpoints one cell so you can read the material by sticking the needle through the cell and harvesting the material on the needle to analyze.”

By allowing the cell to continue living after being screened, doctors and researchers can see the cell’s long-term reactions for a better evaluation of its condition. The research is helpful for cancer drug screening and understanding carcinogenesis as well as the general functions of a cell on its own.

“This method does provide a better understanding of not only how the body responds to a cell but also the happenings and bigger activity inside of the cell and the actions inside of the nucleus,” Ren said. “In order to understand what’s going on inside the cell, you need to get into the cell and preserve the cell.”

By replacing previous sampling methods that decrease the cellular diversity and lowers the specificity of the biomarker profiles by destroying cells, a great variety of cells can be studied, allowing a better specification in diagnosing.

This research builds off of the foundation Ren established in 2005: highly efficient molecular delivery into mammalian cells using carbon nanotube spearing, advancing to the stage removing molecules out of cells by magnetically driving them through the cell walls.

Ren and the rest of the researchers plan to continue their studies of carbon nanotubes research at UH, and continue to build on the advances that have been made.

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