Madhavan Nallani, a researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, hopes his invention will help bring new drug therapies to patients in less time and at lower cost. His invention is making cell membranes from polymers. These artificial membranes can be used for testing how drugs work against their respective target diseases.
Emily Veach reports for The Wall Street Journal about the advantages that these artificial membranes have over live cells:
[Nallani] describes his synthetic membranes as bubble-like, made of polymer and customizable, and grouped into a liquid-based matrix. He says it takes four hours to produce proteins used in his membranes, while it takes four days to produce the same proteins in live cells. Further, a live-cell laboratory requires a large, sterile environment, while with artificial membranes tests can be conducted in a small room atop a standard table or desk. And live cells are more complicated to work with because there is natural variability between individual cells.
Artificial cell membranes are easier and cheaper to manufacture, so much of the preliminary experimentation can be performed more quickly and cheaply than before. Plus, they are more uniform than real cells.
Cell walls are membranes, Veach explains, “and it’s through the proteins found in them that cells communicate with each other, fending off diseases or succumbing to them.” She adds, “in drug discovery, researchers conduct tests to identify the drugs that interact with certain protein receptors in the cell walls.”
The process used to make the artificial membranes is illustrated in the video below. Nallani summarized it for The Wall Street Journal: “You break up the cells, take the soup of the cell. Then you add the DNA, then the soup cooks to produce a protein,” he said. Finally, he tests whether or not the protein in the artificial cell binds to a drug molecule.
Nallani’s invention is a finalist for the Asian Innovation Awards. Veach reports that his current goal is to pitch the technology to pharmaceutical companies. Initial tests by other researchers to verify the technology are quite positive, and plans are in the works to create a company to develop the technology.
Veach adds that because Nallani is targeting the drug-screening process and not direct human treatment, he can likely “avoid, for now, cumbersome regulatory hurdles that can take years.”
Source: “Artificial Cell Membranes Could Speed Up Drug Discovery,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/14/11
Source: “Synthetic Cell Membranes Invented by Madhavan Nallani,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/13/11
Rachel Petkewich is a freelance science writer and editor. She has worked as a research scientist in the chemical industry and spent eight years as a staff writer and editor at various science journals and magazines, including Chemical & Engineering News.