Researchers enable precise cell control

Derek Clayton

A cellular problem may have been solved by ISU scientists. 

Trillions of cells make up the human body, all working together to keep us up and running. Sometimes those cells get damaged or malfunction, giving us wounds or diseases such as cancer. Scientists have been trying to find a way to precisely control cells to help in these situations, and researchers at Iowa State may have the answer. 

Attempting to control cells in the human body is nothing new to the science world. Researchers have already found ways to affect stem cell growth. By changing the hardness of the surfaces beneath stem cells, scientists can make stem cells grow into other types of cells.

“People tune the rigidity of the surface they put cells on,” said Xuefeng Wang, assistant professor of physics and astronomy. “If they put stem cells on hard surfaces, they turn to bone cells. If they put stem cells on soft surfaces, they turn into neurons.” 

While this approach displays results, researchers are forced to use guesswork to determine the causes of cellular change. This approach does not rely on numbers or meaning; it is a qualitative approach. 

Wang takes a quantitative approach by looking at a certain protein present in cells, integrin.

Integrin is like a cell’s legs, letting the cell move by grabbing a surface and pulling the cell along. With this pulling motion, tension is created between the surface and the integrin, Wang said.

Cells have many integrin proteins, and combining all of their pulls creates cellular force. By applying different levels of tension force, cell behavior can be changed. A way to measure this tension had not been developed until Wang’s work.

 “The central technique I have in our lab is the molecular linker called a tension gauge tether,” Wang said. “We use it to control the molecular force of the cell or report the tension tolerance or distribution on the surface.”

The tension gauge tether, or TGT, consists of molecular linkers, which are like microscopic fishing lines. Cells are placed onto these linkers, where the integrin then grabs onto them as the cell moves. The result is tension on the linkers and integrin. 

The TGT allows this tension to be measured and changed, enabling the user of the TGT to control molecular force. With numbers to help make the control process consistent and accurate, Wang’s research opens the doors for the precise controlling cells. 

With the ability to control the tension of individual integrin, one’s control of cells would be unprecedented. The end result of Wang’s research would allow great medical advances, especially in stem cell therapy. 

“Suppose my research is successful,” Wang said. “We can put stem cells on a TGT surface and make them differentiate into a cell type we desire.”

Controlling the differentiation of stem cells is but one possible application of the TGT. Yongliang Wang, a post-doctoral research associate in Xuefeng Wang’s lab, expressed hope for the future of TGT. 

“Maybe in the future we can detect the cancer cell force and control the cancer cells,” Yongliang Wang said.

Xuefeng Wang and his lab members are working to explore the characteristics of cells so they can better use the TGT. It is still too early to actually use the TGT for application, but its maker has high hopes for it and said the medical advances in the wake of its success would be staggering. 

“I believe for the next few years I will put more emphasis on exploration, mechanism and study, not on application,” Xuefeng Wang said. “Still a little far from it.”