New Tool Could Help Develop Novel Asthma, Hypertension Treatments


A new tool that can measure cell strength 100 times faster than current methods may optimize drug development for several diseases.

Cells exert physical force on both an individual level and as larger groups of tissue to perform necessary biological functions. Abnormal levels of cell strength are associated with several diseases, such as hypertension, asthma, and muscular dystrophy.

An innovative tool is able to measure cellular strength on an individual level 100 times faster than current methods, according to a study published by Nature Biomedical Engineering.

The experimental tool was able to measure the strength of more than 1000 cells at a time, making it easier and faster to determine cellular force. The tool will also allow for the expansion of research on cellular force, according to the study.

"Our tool tracks how much force individual cells exert over time, and how they react when they are exposed to different compounds or drugs,” said coauthor Dino Di Carlo, PhD. "It's like a microscopic fitness test for cells with thousands of parallel stations."

A cell’s failure to control exertion levels will impact its ability to complete necessary biological functions, which can lead to the development of a disease or the loss of function all together, according to the study.

The authors noted that asthma occurs when the smooth muscle cells in the airway squeeze too hard, while weak cell strength is associated with the development of heart failure, muscular dystrophy, and migraine headaches.

The tool, called fluorescently labeled elastomeric contractible surfaces (FLECS), consists of a rectangular plate with more than 100,000 X-shaped micropatterns of proteins. The cells attach themselves to the protein micropatterns, which shrink when the cells contract, according to the study.

By altering the shape, stiffness, or composition of the micropattern, the tool can measure the strength of a wide range of cells, according to the study.

To test FLECS, researchers stimulated an asthma attack in a lab using smooth muscle cells that line the airway of the human body. The force was measured by using drugs to make the cells contract and relax, according to the study.

The authors compared the results of FLECS to what is already known about the effect of the drugs on the same type of tissue, which showed that FLECs is more precise than previous methods. The device also demonstrated the ability to analyze the strength of each cell on an individual level, according to the study.

Researchers further tested FLECS on other cells, such as microphages, to evaluate its versatility. FLECS showed that microphages can exert a force up to 200,000 times their own weight when they detect an infection, according to the study.

Compared with the current method of examining the amount of calcium in a cell, FLECS proved to be more precise, according to the study.

FLECS could potentially assist drug development efforts for conditions caused by abnormal cellular strength, according to the authors.

"Our platform can markedly improve the speed and fidelity of screening of millions of potential molecules in order to find new candidates that can rapidly progress through the approval process to become new drugs in asthma, cancer and heart disease,” said coauthor Reynold A. Panettieri Jr, MD.

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