A veritable Tour de France is taking place in a laboratory at the MGH this spring.
Slime into first
GOING FOR THE MOLD: Irimia examines Dicty World Race mazes
A veritable Tour de France is taking place in a laboratory at the MGH this spring. A peloton of cells – team amoeba Dictyostelium (Dicty), a one-celled, soil-dwelling slime mold known for precision versus team HL-60, neutrophil-like cells known for speed – vie for the advantage.
The Dicty World Race is not for the meek or faint of heart. To navigate a complex microfluidic maze, the model cells must be fast and smart. Researchers from all over the world studying cell motility are invited to enter.
“We are the engineers. We build the racetrack. We ask scientists to send us the cells and engineer them to make them perform,” says race organizer Daniel Irimia, MD, PhD, associate director of the MGH BioMEMS Resource Center.
While most sports ban performance-enhancing drugs, doping with this demographic, in this race, is permitted – in fact, it is strongly encouraged.
“Enhancing the expression of some genes and down-regulating other genes, creating mutations – it’s like improving the mechanics on a race car,” Irimia says. “It’s a lot of trial and error.”
The first World Cell Race held in Denver in 2011, was limited to cancer cells. But Irimia says keepers of other lines asked, ‘How about our cells?’, opening the door for two categories in the May 16 Dicty World Race, which will host cells from 20 labs, 10 from the U.S. and 10 from Europe, all leaders in cell migration research.
“It is an opportunity for engineers and biologists to work together, to encourage the engineering of better tools for measuring the role of cell motility in health and disease.”
The ability to control cell movement could provide new paths for intervention in the clinic, says Irimia. “When you have an infection, cells travel to that infection site and when you are injured, they move closer to the wound – all for the purpose of healing. So how can we accelerate these processes? Or, with cancer, how do we slow down the movement of cells that give rise to metastases?”
RACE ORGANIZERS: From left, Joseph Martel, a research fellow from Harvard University; Wong; Bashar Hamza, research engineer; and Irimia – all in the BioMEMS Resource Center
Not all experiments needed to answer these questions can be run on human cells. Dicty is one model cell that is extremely science-friendly because it has a simpler genome and is easier to manipulate than human cells. It is a cell that moves with high precession toward targets – albeit more tortoise than hare. Traveling at about 20 microns a minute, the Dicty needs two days to move one inch. HL-60 neutrophil-like cells travel at a slightly faster pace but are less precise, making them ideal challengers.
“On a cell scale it’s pretty fast. These model cells are on par with some of the fastest cells in the human body,” says Irimia.
Six hundred microns long, the race – which will be broadcast in live streaming video – is expected to take approximately two hours to complete. There are obstacles along the way, decisions to make – whether to go left or right – with some channels leading faster to the end reward, a tasty chemical attractant and for the winning designer a $5,000 prize.
“I think with the race people have to take chances. Breakthroughs may come from any labs and in any form,” says Irimia.
“It’s great to have this worldwide collaboration,” says Elisabeth Wong, a research engineer in the BioMEMS Resource Center. “With any sort of competition in any setting you are really pushing one another to get better and giving each other motivation to perform.”
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