‘Nano-lightbulbs’ are actually polymer patches placed on the walls of living cells that change color and light up as a result of events occurring on the cell surface. Raz Jelinek has seen the light.

After more than three years of research, the professor is unveiling what he has dubbed ‘nano-lighbulbs.’ These polymer patches placed on the walls of living cells actually change color and light up as a result of events occurring on the cell surface.

The unique work is being detailed in a paper that will be published in an upcoming issue of Angewandte Chemie, one of the most prestigious chemistry journals in the world.

Jelinek, a faculty member of the department of chemistry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, believes that his breakthrough will contribute significantly to our understanding of how cells work, and will help with the testing of new drugs. Potentially, pharmaceutical companies may someday use his tool to determine which drugs are successfully penetrating cells and which ones are merely sitting on the cell’s surface.

Jelinek, a chemist by training who has moved more and more towards biology, has been exploring the external wall of the cell: the cell membrane. Understanding the membrane of the cell is considered a crucial aspect of biology research, in order to clarify how cells communicate with one another, and to investigate whether and how certain drugs and hormones are effective in penetrating cells and others are not.

“Over the past eight years, I’ve been working to develop new tools for studying and understaning cell membranes,” Jelinek told ISRAEL21c. “We’ve developed biochemical tools, to study membranes in a simple way that can be used by the pharmaceutical industry and others. Until now, most of the tools used to understand membranes have been model systems – the creation of artificial membranes or artificial cells.”

During their work with artificial cell models, Jelinek and his team had worked with special polymers – in particular, one that was colored blue, and in reaction to events, changed color from blue to red. They had already taken this polymer and developed a model membrane system, and shown that the polymer’s color changes related directly to the membrane processes. They knew that they had a visual tool for studying membrane processes

Three years ago, the team decided to take their work a step further to ‘the real thing- – to work with real living cell systems.

“The idea was to put these small polymer patches on the membranes on live cells so that the polymer would help us to study membrane processes. The challenge was to create a general technology to attach these colored polymers onto cell surfaces without killing the cell and allowing these patches to tell something about the surface by changing color.”

In theory, it sounds simple. In reality, it was a huge challenge. The team worked for three years to figure out how to apply the patch without killing the cell – “no cell likes to be disturbed,” notes Jelinek – and prove that the patch was responding to cell membrane events, giving scientists a new visual tool.

But ultimately, they succeeded, and were able to apply the patches on a number of different kinds of cells (the journal article explores their work with cancer cells.)

In addition to color changes, the polymer that Jelinek and his team were working with had fluorescent properties. So under the microscope, in addition to the color changes, they could actually see the polymer patches light up in response to the cell membrane events – this is why he calls them ‘nano-lightbulbs.’

Jelinek, a Beersheba native, did his undergraduate work in chemistry at Hebrew University, and his graduate and post-doctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Pennsylvania. As his career progressed, his research interests moved more and more to the integration of biology and chemistry and its practical applications. He lives in the town of Reut, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and is married with three children.

Now that he has accomplished this goal, he is moving forward and exploring how his breakthrough might be applied as a tool for pharmaceutical research and development.

“One research direction is to see how specific drugs work, to use this to study drug action and drug penetration into cells – why some some drugs don’t work, [why they] get stuck on the cell surface.”

The tool also opens up a number of additional research directions. In their recently published research, they use the patches on one type of cancer cells – Jelinek is interested in applying them to various types of cancer cells with different surfaces to see how different cancers develop.

“Once you have a new method to study events on cell surfaces, many physical and medical problems that can be addressed,” said Jelinek. “You can study how signals are sent between neurons, for example, by putting the polymer patches on neuron cells, and tracking signal transfer.”