Lasers deliver the genes

Scientists at the University of St Andrews in the UK have developed a new method of delivering genes to cells using laser light. The new technique, which is cheap and powerful, could have implications for future studies in biomedicine and healthcare.

The new method – which involves a miniature violet laser – is cheap, simple, powerful and versatile. Its adaptability means it could have potentially wide medical applications including gene therapy, the delivery of anti-cancer agents and advanced studies of neuro-degenerative diseases.

The new technique involves a violet laser being focused onto cell membranes for a fraction of a second – this causes the membrane to open up, allowing foreign genes to enter. The cell’s internal mechanism causes the membrane of the cell to heal itself thus appearing to suffer no long-lasting damage.

After inserting the genes, the team grew the cells, which appeared to remain healthy and multiplied normally. The presence of the inserted gene in the multiplied cells was then confirmed by observing the red/green fluorescent proteins produced by the ‘new’ gene.

The development, published yesterday, is the work of a team of researchers from across the University – with key figures from the School of Physics and Astronomy, the School of Biology and The Bute Medical School.

‘We believe we have only touched the surface with this technology: the method is simple and inexpensive and could have important bio-medical implications and should find wide use. Since it also has the potential to assist in the cellular delivery of other bio-molecules, we are now looking at other cell types to see how widely applicable the method proves to be, said key researchers Lynn Paterson and Ben Agate of the School of Physics and Astronomy.

The study is part of a new interdisciplinary initiative funded by SHEFC (Scottish Higher Education Funding Council) and the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council).