Chemists have created a new type of artificial cell that can communicate with other parts of the body. A study, published in Science Advances this month, describes a new type of artificial cell that can communicate with living cells.
“This work begins to bridge the divide between more theoretical ‘what is cellular life’ type of work and applicative, useful technologies,” said Sheref Mansy, Chemistry Professor at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study.
The artificial cells are made using an oil-water emulsion, and they can detect changes within their environments and respond by releasing protein signals to influence surrounding cells. This work is the first that can chemically communicate with and influence natural living cells. They started with bacteria, later moving to multicellular organisms.
“In the future, artificial cells like this one could be engineered to synthesizes and deliver specific therapeutic molecules tailored to distinct physiological conditions or illnesses–all while inside the body,” explained Sheref Mansy, professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Chemistry,
Though the initial study was undertaken using a specific signalling system, the cells have applications in therapeutic use, going beyond traditional smart-drug delivery systems and allowing for an adaptable therapeutic.
Since the start of 2020 the world has been a different place. During March the UK Government instigated a lock down, with those who could required to work from home, this included scientists. Completing my PhD studying insect olfaction during a global pandemic was not something I expected, but how did I spend my days?
As a scientist I spend a portion, if not the majority of my time in a lab doing experiments. Pausing this work created several challenges, and as a final year student induced a serious amount of panic! To adapt, I focused more on computational experiments and extensive data analysis. Thankfully, I had some small computational projects already, which could be extended and explored further. This also included attending online courses and webinars to develop new skills – I really enjoyed SCI’s webinar series on computational chemistry and found it useful when completing my protein docking experiments!
Writing, Writing, Writing
As a final year PhD student, there was one task at the beginning of this year that was high on the agenda – writing my thesis. Many past PhD students will tell horror stories about how they were rushing to finish lab work and writing up in a mad dash at the end. Being forced to give up lab work, and having no social activities, meant a lot more focus was put on writing during this time. Personally, I have been privileged to be in a house with other final year PhD students, creating a distraction free zone, and managed to crack down on thesis writing!
Despite in-person events, including many large international conferences, being cancelled, many organisers were quick to move meetings online. This made so many events more accessible. Though I am sad to have missed out on a trip to San Francisco, during lockdown I have attended numerous webinars, online seminars, two international conferences and even given outreach talks to the public and school children.
Getting back to ‘normal’
It is safe to say the world, and the way science works, is never going to be the same. But scientists are slowly migrating back to the lab, adorned with a new item of PPE. On top of our lab coats, goggles and gloves we can add…a mask. Despite the stressful time, I managed to get my thesis finished handing it in with a lot more computational work included than I had initially planned!
In early September of this year, 34 final year chemists from all over the United Kingdom descended on GSK Stevenage for a week of all things chemistry, at the 14th Residential Chemistry Training Experience.
A few months prior, an e-flyer had circulated around the Chemistry department at UCL. It advertised the week-long, fully-funded initiative created to give soon-to-be grad chemists insight into the inner workings of the pharma industry. We were told we would also receive help with our soft skills – there was mention of interview prep and help with presentation skills. As someone who doesn’t have an industrial placement year structured into their degree, I was excited to see how different chemistry in academia might be to that in industry, or if there were any differences at all.
A fraction of GSK’s consumer healthcare products. Image: GSK
Two days in labs exposed me to new analytical techniques and gave me an appreciation for how smoothly everything can run. I was assigned a PhD student who supervised me one-on-one – something you’re seldom afforded at university until your masters year. We hoped to synthesise a compound he needed as proof of concept, and we did!
The abundance in resources available and state-of-the-art equipment at every turn highlighted how different an academic PhD might be to an industry one if that’s the route I decided to go down. The week bridged the disconnect I had between what I’d learnt at university and how things are done or appear.
The GSK training course gave me unique insight into the life of a working scientist. Image: Pixabay
For example, I know enzymes can be used to speed up the rate of a biological reaction, but I’d never stopped to think about what they even look like. They come in the form of a sand-like material, if you’re wondering. Before that week, I hadn’t seen a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine – we’d hand in our samples and someone else did the rest. NMR is an analytical technique we employ to characterise samples, double-checking to see we’ve made the right thing. It was great to put all this chemistry into context.
Our evenings were filled with opportunities to meet GSK staff and a networking formal brought in many others from places like SCI and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
A Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine, used by scientists to determine the properties of a molecule. Image: GSK
During the week, there was a real emphasis on equipping us with the skills and confidence to succeed in whatever we opted to do. That’s exactly how I felt during our day of interview prep. The morning started off with a presentation on the structure of a typical graduate chemistry interview, followed by a comical mock interview before we were set loose with our own interviewer for an hour. Before this, I’d never had someone peer over my shoulder as I drew out mechanisms, and I’d never anticipated that I’d forget some really basic stuff.
The hour whizzed by and when I was asked how I thought it had gone – terribly – and I was met with feedback that not only left me with more confidence in my own abilities, but an understanding of what a good interview is. It’s definitely OK to forget things – we’re human – but what’s most important is showing how you can get back to the right place using logic when you do forget.
Whether you’re curious about what goes on in companies like GSK, know you definitely want to work in pharma or you’re approaching your final year and just don’t know what you want to do (me), I’d recommend seeking out opportunities like this one. I got to meet people at my own university that I’d never spoken to and had great fun surrounded by others with the same love for organic chemistry.