Cells are the building blocks of everything around us. Their ability to group together and form tissue and other complex structures represents the baseline of life and evolution. Many researchers around the world are studying how cells developed this ability to build themselves into complex structures. As research scopes go, it is one of the biggest things anyone can study, too big for just one group to figure out.

chemical engineering brian belardi lab

A new grant for researchers across several departments and schools at The University of Texas at Austin aims to establish a new hub of activity to better understand and replicate the skills that cells possess.

The three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation will support a platform for creating synthetic cells with an emphasis on how they link up and exchange material and information with one another. By building these cells from scratch instead of mixing synthetic and live components, they will also be able to control the cells and impart new capabilities not seen in their living counterparts.

The project brings together biomedical and chemical engineers in the Cockrell School of Engineering. Through their respective specialties, they are able to understand and engineer the mechanical and chemical properties of the junctions and adhesions between cells, which are key to their ability to connect to one other and exchange molecules.

"Synthetic tissue requires building on a molecular scale. Not just building from one component but from the precise combination of all building blocks of life. Because that task is so difficult, labs with diverse expertise must team up," said Brian Belardi, an assistant professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering who is one of the leaders on the project. "The field is grouping together into centers for synthetic cell work, and this grant will help make The University of Texas at Austin one of those major centers."

Bonding between cells is relevant to many real-world applications. Take chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells, for example, a promising cancer treatment. These are engineered to "hijack" the immune system by linking up with malignant cells and attacking them.

Though the treatment has tremendous potential, it isn't without challenges. Re-engineering living cells to do this is hard, and the cells aren't perfect. They experience exhaustion in fighting cancer cells. They sometimes target the wrong cells.

The synthetic cells can be programmed and controlled in a way that would keep them from getting fatigued or attacking non-cancerous cells.

"I think all of us hope for better medicine that is targeted and does what it is supposed to do and nothing else," said Jeanne Stachowiak, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the other leader on the project. "I think synthetic cells are going to be part of how we get there."

The synthetic cells could also be grouped together to build tissue for people who have lost large amounts of it, such as burn victims. Synthetic tissue can be customized to mimic existing cells and communicate well with natural tissue, lowering the chance of the body rejecting it.

The scale of the problem aside, the way the researchers are going about their work is also notable. They are working with Benjamin Gregg, a professor in UT’s College of Liberal Arts and School of Law who focuses on political and social theory, as well as bioethics. This added layer rose out of a recognition of the ethical implications of synthetic cell structures that can communicate with living cells in novel ways.

The rapid development of biotechnology has the potential to improve quality of life for millions of people around the globe. But risks remain. Futuristic ideas like creating functional cells, editing genetics and more all need to be tightly controlled, the researchers say, so the technologies don't fall into the wrong hands and get misused.

Someday, these cells are going to interact with human bodies. So, it's imperative that the team think early on about all potential negative outcomes. 

"As we grapple with the endless possibilities of synthetic cells, proactively designing safeguards will be key. We want to make sure that we don’t construct runaway autonomous programs that can't be controlled or turned off at any point," Belardi said.