Artificial cells support tissue regeneration in mice

A representative of a vascular network formed in the engineered tissue construct

A team of Israeli researchers recently succeeded in forming new blood vessels in mice using synthetic cells, particles built from scratch that mimic some of the functions of living cells, in this case, their ability to turn on a specific gene to make RNA and proteins. This is the first time that such particles have been used in vivo to activate such a complex physiological process, one of the most important for tissue regeneration. The road to clinical trials remains long, but this study paves the way for others to unveil the potential of synthetic cells in biomedicine.

Avi Schroeder‘s research laboratory in Israel focuses on the development of drug delivery systems that can be customized for patients using synthetic biology and, in particular, artificial cell-like systems.

“Our goal is not to build a ‘living’ synthetic cell, but to use their functions to create more advanced and sophisticated biomedical tools,” explained Gal Chen, a member of Schroeder’s lab and first author of an innovative study published in the scientific journal PNAS.

What are synthetic cells?
They are cell-like particles, built from scratch, that mimic one or more of the functions of living cells.

In vivo integration of artificial cells (SCs) that produce fibroblast growth factor (FGFs) proteins, increases endothelial cells and new capillaries infiltration toward matrigel plugs.

Synthetic cell technology to regenerate tissue

She and her colleagues tested the ability of their artificial cells introduced into a body to produce proteins that would activate blood vessel formation, a process that Chen explains is “very complex and one of the most vital for tissue regeneration and healing”.

The team went step by step. They started with in vitro cell culture assays. Then they combined the artificial cells with engineered tissues. Finally, they implanted the artificial cells in an extracellular matrix-based gel[1] transplanted into mice and observed the mice’s blood vessels infiltrate the implanted gel, without detecting a systemic inflammatory response.

When to expect new treatments for patients

Despite a very promising study, there is still a long way to go before new drugs based on synthetic cells emerge. This emerging research field needs more of these preliminary studies to validate the potential of synthetic cells, but there is no doubt that Gal Chen’s study has paved the way. “Only when the technology is mature enough we can consider clinical trials.”

The future of synthetic cells

Gal Chen

Although more complex than passive drug delivery systems, systems that mimic living cells are better controlled and allow for more sophisticated systems and options.

“If we build cells from the bottom up, we know every component and control them much better than living cells.  We can also build more specific systems. For example, we could use artificial cells as tiny drug factories. Once injected into the patient’s body, these factories will produce proteins only when needed and under specific conditions.”

Avi Schroeder‘s laboratory is currently working on extending the lifespan of artificial cells in the body. As for Chen, she is entering her final PhD year and will continue to integrate synthetic biology tools to develop drug delivery systems. “Synthetic biology is a very promising area of research, especially when integrated with engineering and next-generation therapeutics.”

[1]The extracellular matrix (ECM) is a large network of proteins and other molecules that surround, support, and give structure to cells and tissues in the body. Source: National Cancer Institute