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Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and their collaborators have developed a technique that allows them to speed up or slow down human heart cells growing in a dish on command—simply by shining a light on them and varying its intensity. The cells are grown on a material called graphene, which converts light into electricity, providing a more realistic environment than standard plastic or glass laboratory dishes.
The method, described in the May 18 issue of Science Advances, could be used for a number of research and clinical applications, including: testing therapeutic drugs in more biologically relevant systems, developing use-specific drugs that are more precise and have fewer systemic effects, and creating better medical devices, such as light-controlled pacemakers.
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"When we first got this working in our lab, suddenly we had something like 20 people gathering around, shouting things like 'Impossible!' and accusing me of pranking them. We'd never seen anything like this before," said first author Alex Savchenko, Ph.D., a research scientist in the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Diego School of Medicine and Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. Savchenko led the study with Elena Molokanova, Ph.D., CEO of Nanotools Bioscience.
While in some ways simply a thinner version of graphite ("pencil lead"), graphene's unique properties were only truly appreciated relatively recently, an effort recognized with the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to Andre Geim, Ph.D., and Kostantin Novoselov, Ph.D., both physicists at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Graphene is a semi-metal made up of a latticework of carbon atoms, the same element that forms the basis of all living organisms. Part of what makes graphene special is its ability to efficiently convert light into electricity. In contrast, glass and plastic are insulators—they don't conduct electricity. Most biomedical research relies on individual cells...
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