~e; the music of the cells
human being <email@example.com>
Wed, 30 Oct 2002 15:55:05 -0600
// thanks to * for the story. it makes me curious if
// someday MIDI (musical instrument digital interface)
// will someday be connected to medical devices for
// input/output, and as a cybernetic operating system...
I heard the cancer cells singing
Using a machine to translate cellular changes into sounds, Montreal
scientists hope for a breakthrough in diagnostic medicine. STEPHEN
By STEPHEN STRAUSS
Saturday, October 26, 2002 – Print Edition, Page F7
When it comes to the sound of music, it's hard to know how to
characterize the tune a cancer cell sings.
It begins with a stately tinkle from an instrument that sounds like a
computer-synthesized cello. Then it increases in speed and goes up in
pitch until finally it sounds like a merry-go-round melody so
rhythmically berserk it could cause the wooden horses to fall off the
But however weird the tones are to the untrained ear, the Canadian
creators of the cancer song hope that its distinctive wail will soon
become an audio breakthrough in diagnostic medicine.
"What the music basically is is a fingerprinting for various cell
conditions and we are hoping in the laboratory to compose complete
sound profiles for them," says Dr. John Luong, a principal researcher
with the National Research Council's biotechnology laboratory in
To understand how to musically fingerprint a cell, you have to first
understand how to make it sing. At the technique's base is a kind of
measurement technology known as Electric Cell-Subtrate Impedance
Sensing. It was pioneered over the past decade by Norwegian-American
Nobel Prize winner Ivar Giaever, now at the Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute in Rochester, N.Y.
A second generation of the machine under development in Montreal works
A small number of cells is harvested from the body. They are then
deposited in a growth culture on gold-film electrodes so tiny each is
barely the width of three hairs. The cells anchor themselves on the
electrodes, and when a slight current is turned on, they block the free
flow of the electricity, forcing it to move around the edges of the
"The effect might be visualized by imagining electricity as water flow
moving around someone who is standing still, or jumping up and down, or
moving upstream in a river," Dr. Luong says.
Then, using a special kind of computer software, the Canadian
scientists translate the changes in the electrical signal into their
version of cellular music -- sort of like a synthesizer does. The two
components of the signal, current flow and voltage, serve as pitch and
The various changes in the conditions of the cells -- growth, internal
movement, repositioning in the medium -- produce unique electrical flow
signatures and thus their own sound patterns.
"Cancer makes a very quick and very high-pitched sound," Dr. Luong
remarks about the first one they have characterized.
He says his sound fingerprinting might eventually be able to tell
doctors within an hour whether a cell is cancerous, or a pharmaceutical
company whether its new cancer treatment is working, or the military
whether a recently uncovered substance is a potential chemical weapon.
Indeed, the Montreal lab has been working to see how the technology
might be applied in an anti-terrorist framework.
Moreover, the scientists think that they will be able to hear a sound
for a primary tumour cell and for one that has spread from elsewhere.
But why must you rely on sound to convey the nature of cell changes? It
is actually an area of scientific disagreement between Dr. Luong and
The basic problem is that because one can measure what is happening at
the cell level in real time, it is possible to produce hours or days
worth of second-by-second data.
Moreover, this number is multiplied by the number of electrodes on
which the cells are placed -- 16 in the current U.S. machines. While
this multiplication of measurements allows one to guard against false
negative and positive readings, it accentuates the problem of potential
Dr. Giaever has likened the glut to the difference in the amount of
information contained in a photograph versus that found in a movie.
The practical question is how someone such as a doctor would be able to
interpret this multitude of information easily? The question arises
because the aim of the Montreal research is to take the large-size U.S.
machine and drastically miniaturize it and expand its capabilities.
Instead of something that takes up a table top and costs $40,000
(U.S.), the Canadians are aiming at producing a $3,000-to-$5,000
(Canadian) device the size of pocket calculator that might have a
thousand electrodes on which individual cells can be deposited. At this
price and size, it could be used by a small clinic.
Dr. Luong's view is that sound templates should allow a scientist or a
doctor to focus on essential cell changes in the midst of what
otherwise would appear as a myriad of electrical jiggles and wiggles.
"If you have a thousand samples, you only look for trouble where the
trouble comes from," is how he describes the focusing power of a sound
However, it turns out that the idea of turning electrical biosensor
signals into identifying sounds is not new to the Montreal group. Dr.
Giaever says he did it when originally developing his machine, but he
says that "it was sort of a joke, for fun and games, and it wasn't
So his version of an electric cell sensor relies on visual readings to
convey its data.
However, the NRC scientists believe that the Nobel Prize winner -- his
winning work was in super electrical conductivity of certain very cold
materials -- has missed the potential informative quality of the music
of the cells.
"We are not looking at the music just for fun. We think it can give
real information and we will soon have a library of different sorts of
music," Dr. Luong says.
Working in collaboration with a number of partners, particularly Bosco
Chan of the Robarts Research Institute in London, Ont., he estimates
that his group will have prepared the beginnings of a sound library in
Stephen Strauss writes on science for The Globe and Mail.