Researcher develops method to test drugs using light

A researcher is using light to test heart cells and rule out potentially-dangerous drugs.

The study, published last week in Nature Communications, discovered a faster method to predict if new drugs cause irregular heartbeats by using light to control cells. Emilia Entcheva, a professor of biomedical engineering and the lead researcher on the study, said the technology – called optogenetics – will lower the cost of drug testing.

“None of the existing technologies provide the type of information that we can get,” Entcheva said. “We provide much more detailed information on the state of the cells and the response of the cells.”

Entcheva said her team has tested both animal and human heart cells to detect which respond to the light. She said the researchers excite the cells using light, and cells’ responses on different drugs could cause heartbeat irregularities.

The system can test 30,000 light-responsive cells in fewer than 10 minutes. Other methods could take hours or even years to test, according to the study.

“This project is different in that it sounds futuristic that you use light to control cells, and that sort of makes it unusual and exciting,” Entcheva said. “It is brand new technology, and we are pushing the frontier.”

The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation funded the research project. Entcheva said she received a $2.4 million grant in 2011 from the NIH and about $300,000 from the NSF last year.

She said that drug testing is generally very expensive, and this technology will help lower those costs and prevent drug failure.

“In phase one, they give this compound to human volunteers, so you really want to catch things early on,” Entcheva said. “This technology can prevent failures, save money and quickly move onto the next potential drug.”

Entcheva said that her research is patented and that she wants to make it easy enough for drug testers to use day to day.

For the last 15 years, Entcheva has been using light to record electric activity from cells and tissues. A doctoral biomedical engineering student, Aleks Klimas, spearheaded this particular study.

Klimas, who is a co-author on the paper, said she began working on this project with Entcheva in 2012 because she was looking for a way to apply her background in optics – a branch of physics related to the properties of light – to the biomedical field.

“I was looking for a way to apply my optics background to something biological, as I feel there isn’t enough intermixing of the disciplines,” Klimas said. “In order to get the system going, we needed to integrate all the optics components and the control system.”

Klimas said she designed and built the optical system for the research. She said she plans to continue working on this research and hopes to start a company that produces the technology because this system solves problems in the drug industry.

“Current technology only allows for slow characterization,” Klimas said. “Having the ability to speed this up takes us a step closer to having personalized medicine.”

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