The beds of nanowires can be arranged on microarrays suitable for rapid experiments and imaging cells under a microscope. These microarrays can be “printed” with different patterns or combinations of molecules, making it possible to test many different molecules at once on an array of cells. The authors believe it could be possible to screen 20,000 different proteins or other chemicals on cells within a single microscopic slide.
Aviv Regev, a computational biologist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA, says that when she first heard about the method at a meeting, she thought: “It is obvious that this has great potential.” Regev explains that being able to perturb cells by delivering molecules into them is an increasingly popular approach to biology. And while getting things into cells sounds like a simple task, “it’s actually a great stumbling block to doing things systematically.” Ideally, Regev says, a delivery method should be controlled, allow high-throughput testing, and not cause any damage to the cells. The nanowires appear to do all of these things, and “that is why this is so transformative.”
Thorsten Schlaeger, a stem-cell researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston, is investigating the potential of the approach for reprogramming stem cells. His lab is interested in turning embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells into blood stem cells like those found in the bone marrow. Currently, this task requires infecting cells with a virus to introduce new genes into their DNA, and, Schlaeger says, “there’s no good alternative right now.” Schlaeger’s team is looking for better ways to manipulate cells, as well as ways to screen stem cells for factors that can transform them from one cell type to another. “It’s hard to say what will be possible because it’s new, but it’s intriguing,” he says.