10:32am Wednesday 11 December 2019

Artificial membranes to mimic the complex functions of cells

By Simon Levey

New funding worth over £5 million from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is helping scientists to design fully functioning artificial membranes for research, clinical applications and the biotech industry.

Imperial College London’s Professor John Seddon is leading a UK-wide Programme Grant that brings together chemists, physicists and life scientists from Imperial and the Universities of Durham, Leeds, Nottingham and Cambridge.

Biological membranes comprise a double layer of oily molecules with different protein molecules embedded within them, and are an essential and versatile part of every cell. They help to define the cell’s function, for example by actively regulating what can enter and leave, and by controlling how the cell senses and reacts to its surroundings. Membranes are flexible and able to change shape spontaneously, and help the cell do things like move around, exchange chemical signals, or divide in two.

Thanks to sophisticated analytical techniques, scientists have been able to replicate some of these vital functions in the laboratory, but more research is needed before artificial membranes can perform the full range of roles required of them.

The team has identified three main challenges to creating an artificial membrane: how the membrane differs between its internal and external facing layers; how the membrane forms specialised patches that enable the cell to interact with its external environment, for example via chemical signals or direct contact between cells; and how the cell controls the curvature of its membrane during dynamic processes such as cell division.

John Seddon, from Imperial’s Department of Chemistry, said: “Although we don’t yet fully understand all the components that make up membranes, or how they work, we are increasingly finding ways they can be used to solve problems across different scientific disciplines, and within the pharmaceuticals, food, cosmetics, detergents, and oil-recovery industries.  In the future I expect that complex membrane systems designed and produced in the laboratory may perform entirely new functions, for example by helping to treat neuromuscular diseases such as Kearns-Sayre syndrome, which are caused by mitochondrial disorders.”

Artificial membranes may help scientists identify potential side effects from pharmaceutical drugs during the development phase. By screening potential new drugs through a maze of artificial membranes that mimics a route through the human body, they can learn where a potential new drug may affect an unexpected part of the body. Co-Investigator Professor Paul O’Shea, Director of the Nottingham Institute of Biophysics, Imaging and Optical Science, said: “The ability to test and develop drugs in synthetic cellular systems will go a long way to reducing the need for animals in drug testing”.

Further information about the Programme may be obtained from: www.capitals-programme.org

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