Cell membrane on a chip

Researchers Séverine Le Gac and Verena Stimberg have developed an artificial cell membrane on a chip. This chip can be used, for example, to study how medicines, cosmetics or nanoparticles can influence human cells. And that can be done without the need for laboratory animals.

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Photo: researcher Verena Stimberg (credits: Gijs Ouwerkerk)

From an initial inventory that Stimberg made in the framework of the Risk Analysis and Technology Assessment chapter of her PhD thesis, it transpired that the artificial cell membrane had various potential applications. With the chip it is possible to test the effect of cosmetics or medicines without the need for laboratory animals. The chip is also suitable for checking if certain nanoparticles are harmful to human cells.

The chip simulates, in particular, the ion channels in a cell membrane. Ion channels are proteins in the cell membrane, which ensure that salt ions can flow in and out of the cell. That is important for bodily functions such as movement, thinking and feeling. If something goes wrong with an ion channel then that can lead to severe diseases such as epilepsy, cardiac arrhythmias or cystic fibrosis. More than ten percent of the medicines on the market are therefore specifically aimed at these ion channels.

Disadvantages of the current method

To test these medicines it is necessary to determine how they influence the ion channel concerned. The current ways of testing this either measure the effect on the ion channel indirectly or are time-consuming and expensive. They also require living cells and therefore a specialised laboratory needs to perform the tests.

Highlight Celmembraan op chip Stimberg Le Gac
Researchers Verena Stimberg (left) and Séverine Le Gac (photo: Gijs Ouwerkerk)

Glass chip

In a NanoNextNL project, researchers from the University of Twente have developed a chip of approximately 1 cm x 2 cm in size, which consists of two glass plates with a Teflon layer in between. In the Teflon layer a hole of about 100 micrometres (one tenth of a millimetre) in diameter is made. The glass plates contain micro-channels that are connected with each other via the hole in the Teflon. Lipid and then aqueous solutions are rinsed through the micro-channels. As a result of this a membrane is spontaneously formed in the hole in the Teflon that serves as a model for the cell membrane.

Cheaper and quicker

‘We have equipped the chip with both optical and electrical measurement techniques’, says Stimberg. ‘This makes it possible to measure the effect of the proteins or molecules added on the properties of the cell membrane.’ By adding a substance to be tested, such as medicines or chemicals, it can be directly and indirectly checked if this influences the transport of ions through the protein channel. As the chip works with small quantities of the substances to be tested, the tests could be cheaper than the current methods. Two companies were interested in this technology and together with Le Gac and her team they have further developed several aspects of the chip in a new project.

Highlight Celmembraan op chip cover Small - credits Nymus3D
photo: Nymus3D

This image shows a lipid bilayer membrane in a microfluidic chip including proteins such as ion channels. This artist’s impression of the NanoNextNL research by Séverine Le Gac and her team made it to the cover of the journal Small, Volume 9, Issue 7.