Nanotechnology uncovers the mechanical complexion of live cells

23 November 2011

A new approach to measuring the mechanical properties of living cells has been developed by researchers at the Oxford Martin Programme on Nanotechnology and Purdue University’s Birck Nanotechnology Center. This new technology could be used to diagnose human disease and better understand biological processes.

Using an atomic force microscope with a tiny vibrating probe, researchers are able to discover detailed information about living cells on the nanoscale (billionths of a meter). This means that scientists will be able to map the evolution of mechanical properties of cellular structures, for example as cells adhere to tissues, or communicate with each other, which is critical for many diseases and biological processes.

Dr Sonia Trigueros, leading co-author and Senior Research Fellow of the Martin Programme on Nanotechnology explains that “This technology should also be able to show how cells move and change shape, how cancer cells evolve, and how cells react to mechanical stimuli which are needed to activate the production of vital proteins. The technique could be used to study the mechanical properties of cells under the influence of antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and nanomedicines, to learn more about the mechanisms involved.”

Prof. Arvind Raman of the Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue and a 2010 Oxford Keeley Fellow said “Existing methods to map the local mechanical properties of live cells using this instrument are slow and offer low resolution. Our innovation overcomes those limitations, mostly through improvement in signal processing and theory allowing us to use conventional instruments to boost pixels per minute and get quantitative information on different types of cells,"

"There's been a growing realisation of the role of mechanics in cell biology and indeed a lot of effort in building models to explain how cells feel, respond and communicate mechanically both in health and disease," said Sonia Contera, co-author and Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Nanotechnology. "With this paper, we provide a tool to start addressing some of these questions quantitatively. This is a big step."

Research findings from the study, ‘Mapping nanomechanical properties of live cells using multi-harmonic atomic force microscopy’ A. Raman & S. Trigueros, A. Cartagena, A. P. Z. Stevenson, M. Susilo, E. Nauman & S. Antoranz Contera have been published in the on line journal Nature Nanotechnology (November 2011).

Fibroblast image by A Cartagena