Testing For Toxins: Single Cells Could Replace Lab Animals

An electronic surveillance system developed by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., could save scientists hours of bending over microscopes. Without human supervision, the system gauges the way animal cells react to toxins by tracking how they move and change shape. Animal cells are grown in a nutrient-filled plastic dish etched with tiny gold electrodes. The cells grow to cover the electrodes, and as the cells move, changes in electrical resistance show up as waves on a computer screen. By looking at the height and pattern of the recorded waves, scientists can monitor cells' reactions to toxins.

Inventors Ivar Giaever and Charles Keese, both RPI professors, have formed a company called Applied Biophysics Inc. to commercialize the technology. Giaever, who won the 1973 Nobel prize in physics, says the behavior of animal cells provides a good idea of how animals or humans would react to a toxin. He hopes the device will offer an alternative to the use of live animals in testing of cosmetics, detergents, and drugs.

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