Artificial system

In the running for the STAT Madness Trophy

Oor are fat rodents quite impressive? More surprising than the genealogical tree of tumors? Than the tiny self-contained, fake “cells” that sucked pollutants out of the water?

These were the pressing questions three judges considered as all eyes were on them in a New York City boardroom on Thursday afternoon. The judges, Jitka Amira Ismail Virag (Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University), Nicole Renaud (Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research) and Rick Berke (STAT), had to choose the most outstanding research as part of STAT Madness, a competition to find cutting-edge innovations in science and medicine.

The tournament, which kicked off March 1 with 64 entries, is like March Madness, with a bit of a “Shark Tank,” except during presentations by three finalists at the STAT Breakthrough Science Summit, there were no insults or personal fights. in the painting.


Instead, the judges oscillated between the presentations they had just seen, complimenting each of the researchers. “I was hoping to come here and pick one, but it’s really impossible,” said Berke, co-founder and editor of STAT. “It’s like apples and oranges, but they’re all really impressive.”

Dian Yiang went first, presenting the work of his team: using CRISPR gene-editing technology to map the evolution of tumor cells and group cells from a metastasis into “families”. Such phylogenetic tools have been used to track the progression of SARS-CoV-2 and its many derived mutations and variants during the pandemic.


In Jonathan Weissman’s lab at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Sciences, Yiang and his team grafted cancer cells into the lungs of mice, then followed them as they multiplied and metastasized. In doing so, they were able to identify new genes that may promote spread and begin to better understand the complex mechanisms of cancer tumor evolution.

Yiang was followed by Taku Kambayashi, researcher in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

His team found that by injecting obese mice with a signaling protein called thymic stromal lymphopoietin, or TSLP, the rodents released fat through their skin. The mice ate even more of their high-fat diet, but lost weight. Kambayashi wanted to know why.

“The answer was in their appearance,” he said. “They’re so fat they slip out of your hand…they’re skinny, fat mice.”

Instead of going to the liver or other organs, the fat was diverted to the skin. TSLP works through the immune system, activating T cells and triggering the secretion of sebum, a fatty oil that humans produce naturally that helps protect the skin barrier, Kambayashi explained.

Ultimately, as a therapeutic, TSLP could potentially help treat obesity and conditions such as type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and atherosclerosis, but people with skin barrier issues, such as alopecia and eczema, could also benefit from the oil production function. .

The conversation then shifted from oil secretion to miniature machines capable of carrying oil droplets and performing other tasks – autonomously.

Researchers from New York University and the University of Chicago have developed artificial cell-like tools that can be used to ingest pollutants, toxins, and bacteria, retain those contents, and expel them, all powered by exposure to light.

NYU chemistry professor Stefano Sacanna explained his own version of “Fantastic Voyage,” the 1966 sci-fi film that takes viewers on an adventure inside a scientist’s body to rid him of a blood clot in his brain – before it’s too late.

“My lab doesn’t have this technology yet, but we’re very interested in miniaturization and micro-machines that can be delivered in different environments,” Sacanna told the judges.

Each artificial cell was created using oil droplets, which were inflated like balloons and then fired to create solid spheres, equivalent to a cell membrane. The researchers drilled tiny holes in the shells to create a channel to suck in and spit out the materials. And the central “pump” was something like the cell’s mitochondria, powering the orbs when the researchers illuminated them.

Deployed in water polluted with microplastics, the “cells” engulf the waste. In a broth full of E. coli bacteria, the insect would be trapped inside the vacuum cleaners.

Next step: the Sacanna team wants to make the artificial cells communicate with each other, forming what amounts to “a small army” that can make strategic decisions about cleanup and delivery – of toxic waste, medicine, etc.

“As a materials scientist, what I’ve been looking for is to develop materials that are closer and closer to living materials,” Sacanna said. “Things that, of course, aren’t alive, they don’t have a brain, but they can still behave the same way.”

In the end, a public vote returned the STAT Madness trophy to Kambayashi’s oily hands, although the online tournament continued. Voting in the final round will end on April 3.