Scientists develop computer-based quality-control program for cellular engineering

Scientists from three Boston institutions have created CellNet, a computer algorithm to assist scientists in their efforts to engineer specialized cells.

"Most attempts to directly convert one specialized cell type to another have depended on a trial and error approach," said researcher Patrick Cahan of Boston Children's Hospital in a statement. "Until now, quality control metrics for engineered cells have not gotten to the core defining features of a cell type."

CellNet works by using network biology to determine which genes are turned on and off in the engineered cell, known as its Gene Regulatory Network, according to the release. In one of two studies published Aug. 14 in the journal Cell, the researchers found that skin cells can be engineered into intestinal cells for the treatment of colon inflammation (at least in mice).

"To date, there has been no systematic means of assessing the fidelity of cellular engineering--to determine how closely cells made in a petri dish approximate natural tissues in the body," said Dr. George Daley, the director of the stem cell transplantation program at Boston Children's Hospital, in a statement. "CellNet was developed to assess the quality of engineered cells and to identify ways to improve their performance."

James Collins

Added Dr. James Collins of both Harvard and Boston University, "CellNet will also be a powerful tool to advance synthetic biology--to engineer cells for specific medical applications."

Those applications increasingly include medical devices such as bone grafts and 3-D printers that can precisely layer cells in various conformations. In fact, the sports medicine unit of Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) DePuy orthopedics division recently launched a cell concentration device to assist in the healing of an injury or disease by delivering undamaged blood platelets to the site. The device, the Peak Platelet Rich Plasma System, was developed by technology company DSM.

Excitingly for researchers, anyone can access CellNet via the Internet. The application's website contains instructions on uploading and describing data for the computer analysis. The website says that the new technology reveals that cells engineered via differentiation (encouraging a cell to become a specific subtype) more closely resemble their natural counterparts than those that are converted into a new type of specialized cell. 

- read the release
- here's the CellNet website with a link to the instructions for use