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Highlights in Chemical Biology

Chemical biology news from across RSC Publishing.

Chip-based gene transfer

19 December 2007

Dutch researchers have developed a highly efficient method of transferring DNA into stem cells using a lab on a chip style approach.

"Inside cells a large amount of energy is invested into ensuring that proteins reach and maintain their normal shape."
Stem cells have generated considerable interest among medical scientists as modified stem cells offer a potential route to treat diseases using cell therapy. However, the cells are often found in very low numbers and are difficult to isolate, so it is important to be able to modify them efficiently. Standard techniques include bulk electroporation, in which an electrical pulse is applied to cell suspensions to create pores in the cell membranes. Yet these are not particularly effective, with typically only 1-11 per cent of stem cells taking up DNA through the pores.

A microfluidic device applying an electric pulse to a single cell

An electric pulse is used to create pores in single cells held in a microfluidic device

To improve the DNA take-up, or transfection, rate, Albert van den Berg and Ana Valero at the University of Twente, in Enschede, The Netherlands, and their co-workers have developed a system for transferring DNA into stem cells held in a microfluidic device. In this process individual cells are immobilised in mechanical traps and electroporated to transfer DNA into the cells. The added DNA encodes a fluorescent protein which is expressed, demonstrating that the DNA is still biologically viable. The transfection rate was high, with over 75 per cent of cells producing the protein, which van den Berg attributes to the system's 'very well controlled environment.' Looking to the future, van den Berg said the team hoped to create 'a tool for biologists to study and further develop cell reprogramming.'

Huabing Yin, an expert in applying microfluidic techniques to study biological systems, from the University of Glasgow, UK, welcomed the research. 'It demonstrates an efficient way of achieving gene transfer in a single stem cell,' said Yin, 'and is an excellent example of microfluidic applications in life science.' 

Russell Johnson 

Link to journal article

Gene transfer and protein dynamics in stem cells using single cell electroporation in a microfluidic device
A. Valero, J. N. Post, J. W. van Nieuwkasteele, P. M. ter Braak, W. Kruijer and A. van den Berg, Lab Chip, 2008, 8, 62
DOI: 10.1039/b713420g

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