• Scientists have already developed microscopic markers in order to label and observe certain parts of a cell, for purposes such as cancer research.
  • However, nanodiamonds have been developed as an effective alternative.
  • Scientists have discovered how to safely insert these cells using a gentle electric field to open the cell membrane and 'nanostraws' to insert them.
  • They allow scientists to research cellular diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's.

Over the years, scientists have put together an amazing array of microscopic markers that they can place within cells whenever they need to label and observe distinct parts of a cell’s interior. Such labelling is used for a wide array of research, including cancer research.

But sneaking these markers into cells, through the membrane that protects them from unwanted substances, is far from easy. Creating too wide a breach in the cell membrane when injecting the markers can be fatal for the cell. Plus, once they’re smuggled inside, many markers are actually toxic – and are either attacked by the cell, or lead to its demise.

In the search for non-toxic markers, scientists have landed upon nanodiamonds: identical to those bejewelling engagement rings, but a million times smaller. Nanodiamonds make excellent reporters within cells, but they’re yet to feature in scientists’ toolkits because getting them inside the cell without damaging the membrane has proven too difficult.

Led by my supervisor Christelle Prinz from NanoLund, Lund University, our team has created a new way to sneak nanodiamonds into cells without causing damage or provoking the cell to attack them. Our new technique will help scientists study the properties of living cells at the molecular level, but it could also become a versatile new tool to help us understand more about cellular diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Monitoring cells

Our bodies are built out of approximately 40 trillion cells, ranging between 1 and 100 micrometers in size. Some of these cells sometimes get sick – causing cancer in various tissues, or neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s in brain cells. By monitoring sick cells, researchers can learn more about the origins and development of these diseases.

Microscopes can peek within a cell, but they’re poor at discerning a diseased cell from its healthy counterpart. For more detailed monitoring, researchers label cells with biological markers which expose more about what’s happening inside cells.

Existing biological markers, like organic dyes and fluorescent proteins, can expose some of the conditions within a cell for researchers to study. But these markers often kill the cell, limiting their utility for long-term cellular studies. Nanodiamonds, on the other hand, don’t kill cells – which is why they’re now being used by researchers in cellular science.

Why nanodiamonds?

Nanodiamonds are either produced by detonating synthetic diamonds, or from the powder left over after milling natural diamonds. Despite their luxury connotations, they’re actually relatively cheap for researchers like us to purchase – costing about the same as existing biomarkers.

image of nano diamonds viewed through a scanning electron microscope
Nano diamonds viewed through a scanning electron microscope.
Image: Diogo Volpati, Lund University

Crucially, nanodiamonds are biocompatible: they’re completely harmless and non-toxic when placed inside living tissue. That means they can lurk incognito within our cells. Once inside, nanodiamonds shine within cells – sending information back to researchers in the form of fluorescent light, the wavelength of which changes depending on the pH or the temperature within the cell.

Infiltrating a cell

It’s not easy getting nanodiamonds into a cell. Cell membranes have evolved an impressive protective apparatus to keep unwanted intruders outside. To sneak nanodiamonds in, we either have to hope that cells will invite them in voluntarily – a very slow and inefficient process – or else we have to force their entry through the cellular membrane.

Microinjection, using microscopic needles, has been used to deliver markers like nanodiamonds across the cell membrane without fatally damaging the cell, but it’s a painstaking method that’s often unsuccessful.

Even after a successful infiltration, nanodiamonds risk being gobbled up by a cell’s lysosomes, which are a bit like a cell’s bodyguards. Biomarkers captured and confined within lysosomes are of little use for researchers trying to observe the whole cell.

Nanodiamond smugglers

We’ve developed a new method to sneak large numbers of nanodiamonds into cells, largely undetected by the lysosomes, and without damaging the cell itself. Our approach combines a very gentle electric field, which eases the cell membrane open, with so-called “nanostraws” – like drinking straws, but nanoscopically small.

In our study, we used cells derived from a patient with lung cancer. We lay these cells on thousands of nanostraws, comparable to a minuscule bed of nails. Underneath these nanostraws lay our nanodiamonds, in a slightly conductive solution.

When we applied low-voltage electrical pulses to the nanostraws, small openings appeared across the cellular membrane, at the tip of each nanostraw, creating an access pathway for the nanodiamonds to reach the cell’s interior.

The electric pulses encouraged the conductive solution to travel up through the straws, dragging the nanodiamonds with it through the tiny breaches in the cell membrane. When we stopped the pulses, the small openings in the cell membrane closed behind the smuggled cargo of nanodiamonds.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

A cell’s best friend

Our new technique is roughly 300 times quicker than simply incubating cells in a solution of nanodiamonds and waiting for some of them to naturally pass into the cell. It also halved the entrapment of nanodiamonds inside lysosomes, thus allowing a big portion of the delivered nanodiamonds to stay free and mobile inside the cell’s interior: a successful infiltration.

Because nanodiamonds can report on the temperature or acidity of different parts of a cell over time, we hope our nanodiamond infiltration technique could help identify and track cancer cells, or brain cells that are implicated with Alzheimer’s disease. And, if we can find a way to pair nanodiamonds with certain chemicals, we could also find even more refined ways to spy on conditions within the fundamental building blocks of our bodies.