Membrane-on-a-chip automates Covid-19 drug testing

July 06, 2020 //By Nick Flaherty
A 'cell membrane-on-a-chip' developed in the UK and US is being used to automate the testing of new drugs to tackle Covid-19.
A 'cell membrane-on-a-chip' developed in the UK and US is being used to automate the testing of new drugs to tackle Covid-19.

Researchers have developed a 'membrane on a chip' that allows continuous monitoring of how drugs and infectious agents interact with human cells, bacteria and viruses. The technology is being adapted to test potential drug candidates for Covid-19.

The researchers from the University of Cambridge, Cornell University and Stanford University, say the chip can mimic any type of cell, including the Covid-19 virus. 

The key is that the cell membrane is grown while preservinges all of the critical aspects, such as structure, fluidity and control over ion movement, without having to keep a cell alive. This also makes it much safer to test out drugs on the membrane of the SARS-CoV-2 virus without having to use the virus itself.

The cell-sized chip integrates a cell membrane with conducting polymer electrodes and transistors. Mutlitple devices can be combined in an array.

To generate the on-chip membranes, the Cornell team first optimised a process to produce membranes from live cells and then, working with the Cambridge team, coaxed them onto polymeric electrodes in a way that preserved all the functionality. The hydrated conducting polymers provide a more 'natural' environment for cell membranes and allows robust monitoring of membrane function.

The Stanford team optimised the polymeric electrodes for monitoring changes in the membranes. The device no longer relies on live cells that are often technically challenging to keep alive and require significant attention, and measurements can last over an extended time period.

The chip has been used to monitor the activity of ion channels, a class of protein in human cells which are the target of more than 60 per cent of approved drugs. The results are published in two recent papers in  Langmuir and ACS Nano .

"Because the membranes are produced from human cells, it's like having a biopsy of that cell's surface - we have all the material that would be present including proteins and lipids, but none of the challenges of using live cells," said Dr Susan Daniel, associate professor of chemical and


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