Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have studied gatekeepers of cell membranes one at a time with revolutionary nanotechnology. They found that these gatekeepers can be manipulated to work longer hours by turning on a molecular switch.
In order to let useful molecules go through the membrane, cells use gatekeeper molecules called transporters. The findings that these gatekeepers can be manipulated by turning on a molecular switch constitute a profound contribution to our understanding of cells and may have massive implications for curing a plethora of diseases related to ‘gatekeeper molecules’, including depression, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, obesity and cancer.
The results suggest that the switch may be a common characteristic of all types of transporters. “If many transporters turn out to be switched on in the same way as the ones we’ve studied, this opens a door to understanding – and maybe curing – a wide range of diseases,” says Professor Dimitrios Stamou, who heads a multidisciplinary team of scientists at the Nano-Science Center and Department of Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen. Their discovery has just been published in the most recent issue of the journal Science.
To perform their studies, the researchers have developed a method to study one transporter molecule at a time. From a complex cell, they isolated the transporter molecule and put it into a model system – artificial nanocells. Within each nanocell, they placed thousands of fluorescent dyes, chemical molecules functioning as nanoscopic torches, which light up and report faithfully the ‘working hours’ of each transporter molecule. Importantly, because the nanocells are so small (100 nm in diameter), they could study millions of them using a chip not bigger than a square millimeter.