New technology protects authenticity of engineered cell lines

Advances in synthetic biology and genome editing have led to a growing industry to develop customized cell lines for medical research. These engineered cell lines, however, can be vulnerable to misidentification, cross-contamination and illegal replication.

A team of University of Texas at Dallas researchers has developed a first-of-its-kind method to create a unique identifier for each copy of a cell line to allow users to verify its authenticity and protect the manufacturer’s intellectual property (IP). The engineers demonstrated the method in a study published online May 4 and in the May 6 print edition of Science Advances.

The patent-pending technology is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between UT Dallas faculty members. The study’s co-corresponding authors are Dr. Leonidas Bleris, a professor of bioengineering who specializes in genetic engineering, and Dr. Yiorgos Makris, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who is an expert on electronics hardware security.

Custom cell lines are used in the development of vaccines and targeted therapies for a range of diseases. The global cell-culture market is projected to reach $41.3 billion by 2026, an increase from $22.8 billion in 2021, according to a forecast by market research company MarketsandMarkets.

The UT Dallas engineers’ research to develop unique identifiers for genetically engineered cells was inspired by what are called physically unclonable functions (PUFs) in the electronics industry. A PUF is a physical characteristic that can serve as a unique “fingerprint” for a semiconductor device such as a microprocessor. In semiconductors, PUFs are based on natural variations that occur during the manufacturing process and must meet three requirements: They must have a unique fingerprint, produce the same fingerprint each time they are measured and be virtually impossible to replicate.

To apply that concept to engineered cells, the researchers developed a two-step process that takes advantage of a cell’s ability to repair damaged DNA, which is made up of sequences of small molecules called nucleotides.

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