Unlocking the mystery of how cells in the body function

Physicists and biologists are to work together to find out how our body’s cells work at a fundamental level.

The team are examining ion channels in biological cells, which are involved in the basic functioning of all forms of life. They control how ions (electrically charged particles) enter or leave the cells.

Unlocking how they work could hold the clue to understanding many diseases like cystic fibrosis, Sudden Cardiac Arrest and Long QT Syndrome which can cause sudden death.

This groundbreaking collaboration is led by physicist Professor Peter McClintock who said: “These natural nanotubes exist in the membranes of all biological cells. They control a vast range of biological functions and are crucially important for life.

“Just lifting a finger requires the coordinated operation of billions of ion channels. Understanding ion channels is relevant to curing many diseases, and may also provide the future basis for bio-computers and their integration with nano-electronics.”

The grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will enable physicists to use their expertise to shed light on basic biology at the subcellular level. 

The team includes Professor Aneta Stefanovska, Dr Dmitry Luchinsky, Dr Stephen Roberts and Dr Igor Kaufman from Lancaster with Igor Khovanov and Mark Rodger from Warwick and Bob Eisenberg from Chicago.

Biologist Dr Stephen Roberts from Lancaster University said: “If we know how ion channels work, then we will know how to fix or treat them when they don’t work. Their malfunctioning is implicated in dozens of diseases and 13% of current medical drugs on the market target ion channels so that shows how important they are.”

The team will develop a model of a generic ion channel to investigate its functioning, especially how the channel selects between different ions like calcium or sodium.

Dr Igor Kaufman  said: “We have a new vision of how ions go through the channels so we want to model this and in so doing, to get a better understanding of how ion channels work. This is important research and in the long run this could lead to better targeted drugs.”

The three and a half year project is entitled “Ionic Coulomb blockade oscillations and the physical origins of permeation, selectivity, and their mutation transformations in biological ion channels”.

Lancaster University