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New electronic technology allows observation of electrical signals generated by cancer cells

CBMR and Instituto de Telecomunicações developed recently a partnership in order to create new electronic components that measure the electrical activity of cells of the nervous system. The new technology has been tested in the laboratory with cells derived from mouse’s brain tumors (astroglioma). These cells are tumor cells whose origin resides in the astrocytes, cells that exist in the nervous system and whose normal function is to give functional, metabolic and structural support to the neurons. Unlike the neurons, the astrocytes are “electrically silent”. The new electronic components allowed to measure discrete electrical signals (smaller than a micro-volt) produced by cultures of cells derived from brain tumors.

Until now the available technology has only allowed to measure signals larger than 10 microvolts in cell cultures. This new system allows the cells to be examined throughout the culture process directly on the electronic chips that detect the electrical signals. Cancer cells have a very intense metabolic activity, and as a result of this metabolism, acidify the environment that surrounds them (Warburg effect). The team of University of Algarve observed that when the cells are in an acid environment they generate electrical signal patterns in a cooperative way. When the cellular sensors of this acidification (acid-sensing ion channels) are blocked, the electrical activity of the tumor cells is eliminated.
These observations were only possible due to the innovation of this electronic system that evaluates the electrical activity of the cells.

With this research, new questions arise about the possible electrical signaling produced by brain tumors and their impact on brain physiology. If cells from a brain tumor can also generate electrical activity, these signals may interfere with the normal functioning of the brain and may eventually contribute to epileptic seizures, which often arise associated with brain tumors.
If possible, the development of targeted therapies may be very useful in reducing the impact of epileptic seizures on cancer patients, with a considerable improvement of their quality of life.
The research involved researchers of University of Coimbra (Profª Carmo Medeiros – Departamento de Engenharia Eletrotécnica e Computadores) and from Max-Planck Institute (Germany).
At the University of Algarve the team was led by Inês Araújo, CBMR researcher, and Henrique Gomes, researcher of Instituto de Telecomunicações

The study was funded by Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia through the project: Implantable Organic Devices for Advanced Therapies (INNOVATE) (PTDC/EEI-AUT/5442/2014).

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