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Nanoscale probe could improve understanding of how cells communicate, respond to medication

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Stanford engineers have developed a nanometer-scale probe that can be implanted in a cell wall without damaging the wall, allowing researchers to monitor cell communication for up to a week.

The probe, shown in the photo sitting firmly fused into a cell membrane, holds the potential to give researchers a better understanding of how cells communicate and respond to medication. With modification, the device might serve as a conduit for administering medication directly to a cell or offer an improved method of attaching neural prosthetics such as artificial arms that are controlled by pectoral muscles.

Engineers overcame significant technical challenges in designing the probe, according to the release:

Applying such a thin layer to the tip of a probe only 200 nanometers in diameter was impossible using existing methods, so [engineers] devised a new technique using metal deposition to create the thin band that was needed.

That carefully applied metal coating on the stealth probe could give researchers electrical access to the inside of a cell, where they might monitor the electrical impulses generated by various cellular activities. That, combined with the probe's stability in the membrane, could be a huge asset to studies of certain electrically excitable cells such as neurons, which send signals throughout the brain, spinal cord and other nerves.

Photo by Benjamin Almquist

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