~e; the music of the cells

From human being <human@electronetwork.org>
Date 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

PNG image

Using a machine to translate cellular changes into sounds, Montreal  
scientists hope for a breakthrough in diagnostic medicine. STEPHEN  
STRAUSS reports

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  
this way:

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  
Dr. Giaever.

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  
data overload.

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  
six months.

Stephen Strauss writes on science for The Globe and Mail.