MIT miniaturizes antenna for wireless operation inside living cells

By Nick Paul Taylor, The Science Advisory Board contributing writer

September 23, 2022 -- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have created an antenna that can operate inside cells and is compatible with 3D biological systems, with the potential for applications in diagnostics and therapeutics.

Bioelectronic interfaces are typically millimeters in size, meaning they are both highly invasive and fail to provide the resolution needed to wirelessly interact with single cells. The size of existing interfaces is a barrier to their use in wireless intracellular sensing, modulation, and cell tracking, leading multiple teams to try to miniaturize the technology.

However, efforts to create submillimeter antennas have run into a range of problems, including high signal loss and heating effects that damage living systems. In their study, published September 22 in the journal Nature Communications, MIT researchers describe their work to overcome the challenges.

The team addressed the challenges by developing an antenna that converts electromagnetic waves into acoustic waves. Because acoustic waves are orders of magnitude smaller than electromagnetic waves, the conversion removes one of the barriers to the miniaturization of antennas. The conversion was made possible by a material that creates acoustic waves when subjected to an alternating magnetic field.

"The most exciting aspect of this research is we are able to create cyborgs at a cellular scale. We are able to fuse the versatility of information technology at the level of cells, the building blocks of biology," Deblina Sarkar, PhD, assistant professor and AT&T Career Development Chair at the MIT Media Lab, said in a statement.

After developing the antennas, dubbed the Cell Rover, Sarkar and her colleagues introduced them into cells using a nonuniform magnetic field. The successful operation of the antenna in fully opaque, stage VI Xenopus oocytes suggests the Cell Rover could be beneficial in the study of cells for which real-time imaging with conventional technologies is challenging.

Having established the foundational technology, the researchers are now evaluating ways to integrate additional capabilities that may make it a useful tool in diagnostics, therapeutics, and biology studies. The collaborators see opportunities to use the Cell Rover to monitor the development and division of cells. In theory, the antenna could detect physical and biochemical changes in vivo in real-time.

That potential has applications in a range of fields. In drug discovery, for example, the antenna could show how live cells respond to different molecules. The technology could also detect biochemical and electrical changes associated with the progression of cancer and neurodegenerative disease. Further miniaturization of the antennas is also on the agenda.

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