Cell membrane on a chip may help find a drug for COVID-19 with brute force

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A brute force attack in cybersecurity involves a person (though it’s increasingly just a programme) guessing hundreds of possible passwords until the right one is found.

We explain this because researchers from the University of Cambridge, Cornell University and Stanford University have found a way to mimic cells on a chip so that they can continuously be monitored regarding how drugs and diseases interact with them.

That last part is especially important as the world races to find a vaccine for COVID-19.

Simply put, researchers have seemingly found a way to test how a cell reacts to something, using brute force.

The researchers have created a sensor which mimics a cell membrane’s structure, fluidity and more. A chip then measures any changes in this sensor and gives researchers greater insight into how a disease interacts with a cell.

“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 associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell University, Dr Susan Daniel.

While one could use live cells, that takes time and this alternative could make high-throughput screening for how COVID-19 for example, reacts to certain drugs a real possibility.

“With this device, we are not exposed to risky working environments for combating SARS-CoV-2. The device will speed up the screening of drug candidates and provide answers to questions about how this virus works,” said Cornell University researcher, Dr Han-Yuan Liu.

This project was being funded by the United States Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to study how influenza interacts with cells. Given the current pandemic however, DARPA provided additional funding to test the above device’s effectiveness in screening for potential drugs which may combat COVID-19.

“Given the significant risks involved to researchers working on SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, scientists on the project will focus on making virus membranes and fusing those with the chips. The virus membranes are identical to the SARS-CoV-2 membrane but don’t contain the viral nucleic acid. This way new drugs or antibodies to neutralise the virus spikes that are used to gain entry into the host cell can be identified,” reads a release from EurekAlert.

As one of the researchers said, this is a great example of biology and materials science coming together to address a global problem.

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.