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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
Section: Science Life
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Published: 23.03.2006, 06:00
Modified: 23.03.2006, 15:57
New international center
The forces of nanomedicine

To better understand the mechanical forces of living cells, an international group of researchers has come together in the "NanoMedicine Center for Mechanical Biology". ETH Professor Viola Vogel is taking part, and hopes that in the long term a mechanical repair manual for cells may be developed.

Christoph Meier

How would it be if the first cancer cells could be detected and destroyed before they could form a malignant tumour? How about if we could arm a cell with a miniscule machine, analogous to a hearing aid in the hearing-impaired, which would restore it to a healthy status? These questions might sound like something out of science fiction, but science is already laying the foundations for their answers.

In this context the "NanoMedicine Center for Mechanical Biology"(1) was recently set up. It is one of a number of projects in the area of nanomedicine supported by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) ?and comprises a fusion of researchers from ten different working groups. The "leading house" is Columbia University in New York. The team of Professor Viola Vogel, ETH Professor of Biologically Oriented Materials, is also taking part (2).

Smaller and cheaper thanks to nanomedicine

"Essentially the association’s projects aim at reaching abetter understanding of the mechanics of cells," explains the scientist. Although much biological and chemical knowledge is available, little is known about how the forces acting on cells regulate the way they function. Preliminary research indicates that the biomechanics played out in cells on the nano-scale is crucial to an understanding of living organisms and their diseases. It is known, for example, that the rigidity of tissue at the molecular level can be decisive in whether a cell develops in a benign or a malignant manner. Research of this type has only been possible in the last few years, says Vogel, thanks to progress in the development of tools such as the atomic force microscope which are suitable for application in biology.

"The cost explosion in health care systems is a huge global challenge which we can only meet by utilising all the new tools," believes ETH Professor Viola Vogel, who is tackling the problem in the area of nanomedicine.

Now that the tools are available, however, it is clear to Vogel that they must also be put to use. Just as rapid development and falling costs have been achieved in the computer industry through miniaturisation, so, too, should nanomedicine contribute to lower health costs via targeted miniature operations. "The cost explosion in health care systems is a huge global challenge which we can only meet by utilising all the new tools," she believes.


The forces that preside between and inside cells are central to the understanding of living organisms and their diseases. The picture shows how two cells coupled via their fibronectin matrix interreact mechanically (Picture: Viola Vogel). large

To deploy the new methods of analysis even more rapidly in their turn, close research collaboration is required. "This is where the new centre comes in," explains Vogel. "Its aim is to catalyse collaboration by means of common, or English “umbrella” funding. " The project's budget of roughly 1.5 million US dollars over the next five years will thus be deployed mainly for exchange activities. In addition, a website will soon go online where individual projects will be presented.

First project on cell structure

In her work for the new centre Viola Vogel is concentrating on the biomechanics of fibronectin. This molecule is a central building block of the cell's exterior matrix and influences cell adhesion and signal transmission . Changes in the fibronectin matrix can influence the differentiation of cancer cells. Vogel wants to investigate how mechanical stretching affects the functioning ofproteins. This is because via mechanical coupling a protein alters its chemical binding sites in comparison to its state of equilibrium when it lies isolated in solution. As fibronectin exhibits a modular structure, it is also of interest to determine the sequence in which the chemical binding sites are mechanically altered.

While Viola Vogel is primarily investigating the mechanics of matrix formation and cell adhesion, her colleagues in the USA and Israel are focusing on the effects of forces on sites of cell contact with the outside world and with the cell interior.

A handbook on the mechanics of cells

Looking into the farther future, the team hopes to produce a cell repair manual. Here a construction plan for cells would be needed, much like those developed by engineers for machines. Viola Vogel believes that this knowledge would also help to clarify the origins of many diseases, for a fundamental understanding of potential damage requires an insight into how mechanical forces influence cell functions. Until this point is reached, however, a lot of cell engineers who undertake big research excursions into this smallest of worlds are still needed.

(1) NIH webpage on the new centre:
(2) ETH Laboratory for Biologically Oriented Materials:

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