Improving cancer and disease treatments by understanding electromagnetic communication among biological cells

Prof. Kamal Sarabandi and ECE PhD student Navid Barani won a best paper award for their research on how biological cells may use electromagnetic signal transmission to communicate.

Kamal Sarabandi and Navid Barani Enlarge
Prof. Kamal Sarabandi and ECE PhD student Navid Barani

Kamal Sarabandi, the Rufus S. Teesdale Professor of Engineering and Director of the Radiation Laboratory, and ECE PhD student Navid Barani recently won a Best Paper award at the 2020 North America Radio Science Meeting (USNC-URSI) Student Paper Competition for their research on how biofilms can use electromagnetic (EM) signal transmission as a means of communication within their communities of cells.

Biofilms are a collection of one or multiple types of microorganisms including bacteria, microbes, and fungi. The human body hosts biofilms in the mouth and intestinal tract that can protect our health or, in the case of staph infections, harm it. Biofilms may also contribute to the development and growth of certain types of cancer. By understanding communication mechanisms in biofilms, biologists can better identify the nature of the information being exchanged.

“This may allow us to disrupt the communication of infectious bacteria that make us sick or the growth of cancerous tumors,” Sarabandi says.

Sarabandi and Barani present a novel multiphysics model called “Electromagnetically-Coupled System of Mechanical Oscillators” to explain how EM signaling communication would work in biofilms. Within specific types of biofilms, there are biological elements called amyloid fibrils. These fibrils can play the role of antennas for their corresponding cells.

“The most exciting part of this finding is we integrated our knowledge in applied electromagnetics with physics and biology to explain a phenomenon existing in nature,” Barani says. “This really emphasizes the nature of the multidisciplinary world we are living in.”

Sarabandi and Barani also compare EM signaling communication to quorum sensing, which is commonly accepted as the main communication mechanism for biological cells. Quorum sensing is when cells release chemical molecules to adjacent cells through the process of diffusion, but EM signaling communication requires far less energy and can provide a higher data rate over a longer range. As such, Sarabandi and Barani assert that EM signaling may be the preferred method of communication used by cells in biofilms.

“We are focusing on gathering further experimental evidence and fine tuning our understanding of mechanisms for electromagnetic emission and reception by cells,” Sarabandi says. “We are just at the beginning of this exciting research.”

The project is funded by the DARPA RadioBio program.