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SYFY WIRE zombies

Zombified cells could find the next miracle drug that keeps us alive

By Elizabeth Rayne
FDA image of pharmaceuticals

So far, we’ve been able to zombify everything from mammoth cells to entire pig brains, while zombie raccoons and deer are crawling in the shadows out there, but nobody has managed to create undead human cells… until now.

These micro-zombies are actually cells that have had their innards replaced by magnetic nanoparticles of iron oxide — for science. Researchers at the University of Alabama pulled off this experiment, which sounds like legit horror movie fodder, to make it possible to screen natural substances for pharmaceutical properties. A screening process that used to take weeks or months may now take days. That’s almost scary.

“Zombie” biological cell membranes attract pharmacologically active compounds that could eventually be used in far-reaching, advanced medications. Think about it. Something like 70% of drugs now approved by the FDA were lurking in nature before they were discovered and extracted from their sources. Obviously, there is much more diversity in nature than whatever synthetic we can come up with. The next miracle drug could come from an unlikely plant or fungus.

"This solves one of the main problems and bottlenecks drug discovery from natural products," said Dr. Lukasz M. Ciesla, UA assistant professor of biological sciences and co-author of a study recently published in Nanoscale. "It dramatically speeds up the process of the identification of new drug leads. Plants produce chemicals with structures we cannot possibly imagine."

Using ionic solvents, Ciesla and his team leeched out the cell’s innards before using its membrane as a casing for iron oxide. The cell, which is technically no longer alive but still has a functioning membrane, is then inserted into a plant extract. Because the iron oxide keeps the cell undead, kind of like the electrodes attached to Frankenstein’s monster, transmembrane proteins are still alive enough to be receptors for active particles. This is a huge advantage over synthetics and computer simulations.

Unearthing these particles could mean the next huge medical breakthrough. If the receptors interact with a compound in the extract, the nanoparticles of iron oxide will pick up that compound, which can then be pulled out with a magnet and detached with solvents. The team used nicotinic receptors, which respond to drugs (including nicotine), for this experiment. Even cooler is that any kind of receptors can be used.

"The cool thing of this project is it's not limited," said Dr. Yuping Bao, UA associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, who also co-authored the study. "All you need to do is switch out the cell type, and you can fish out a different type of drug candidate."

Zombie medicine will someday keep us alive. Talk about irony.

(via University of Alabama)