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Tracking molecules on the move

Current analytical techniques are able to detect molecules within a cell fairly easily, but as soon as the chemical messengers escape, all trace of them is lost. Still, knowing how cells and tissues communicate is vital to understand cellular mechanisms and could shed light on how certain illnesses operate. Two professors at Université de Montréal, Jean-François Masson in the Department of Chemistry and Louis-Éric Trudeau in the Department of Neurosciences, have taken up the challenge and developed a nanoprobe that tracks molecules as they exit the cell.

Knowing how cells and tissues communicate is vital to understand cellular mechanisms.

Pairing the probe and a glass nanofiber enabled the researchers to move the measurement process just a few micrometers from a cell. Relying on spectroscopy, the probe amplifies the signals emitted by the molecules and makes them easier to identify. Positioning the nanoprobe near neurons in a petri dish makes it possible to intercept and measure around ten neurotransmitters simultaneously secreted by the cells. The next step is to conduct the same experiment using mouse brain tissue, which is more representative of the organ’s complexity. To help them in their quest, the scientists turned to artificial intelligence and image processing through deep learning to pinpoint the more complex signals emitted by certain molecules.

According to Professor Masson, the technological breakthrough could soon benefit the pharmaceutical field. The injection of a drug triggers a change in cell metabolism. By analyzing the molecules secreted by the cell, it is possible to determine the efficacy of the drug and adapt the treatment to each patient.