ASCB: The Crowd Roars as World Dicty Cell Race Returns

ASCB covered the announcement of the 2016 cell race:

Consider the sheer spectacle of the Dicty World Cell Race. Imagine that it’s October 26 at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) laboratory of cell motility researcher Daniel Irimia. Bang goes the opening pipette for the 2016 edition and genetically altered Dictyostelium discoideum (Dicty) cells pour across the start line of a millimeter-long, microfluidic maze. Nearby faster but less accurate HL-60 human neutrophil cultured cells dash along the twisting track, hitting speeds close to 30 microns a minute as they follow a chemotaxic gradient through the maze to the finish line. The racing Dicty and HL-60 cells have only three hours to cover the entire millimeter. Fortunately the microscope cams which watch each heat and the software which analyzes the results never lose interest. Still the worldwide microscopic racing community will be hoarse by day’s end.

There are serious concerns behind the second running of the World Dicty Cell Race, says Irimia who is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and led the race committee with co-conspirator Michael Myre of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The first is technological—Irimia doesn’t think the cell motility community appreciates the full potential of microfluidic devices. Second, Irimia doesn’t think the wider world realizes that cells move. “Of the people I talk to [outside science], very few understand that cells move. Probably 80% don’t know that. They know about cells but they don’t know that they move. ‘Cells move? Really?’ I tell them that it’s essential for life.”

Cell motility is especially critical to leukocyte biology, which is Irimia’s particular interest, and to sepsis, which in Irimia’s opinion, should be of wide public concern because treating sepsis in intensive care units may account for 10% of all Medicare spending in the U.S. “It’s only one in ten people who know about sepsis,” says Irimia. “Almost everyone on the streets knows about HIV-AIDS but the cost of treating HIV-AIDS is only a fraction of what sepsis is costing us.” The recent death of boxer Muhammad Ali is a case in point. Everyone knows that Ali had Parkinson’s disease, but his actual cause of death was septic shock, Irimia points out. If putting Dicty, a social amoeba, into racing colors and pitting it against HL-60, a cultured cell line of neutrophil precursors, can get the cell motility message out, it is worth all the effort, he believes.

It would also be good if the Dicty community in general and leukocyte researchers in particular could fully employ the new technology of microfluidic devices, which can model under tightly controlled conditions all sorts of biological processes. He says that a microfluidic device, for example, could model “inflammation on a chip.” Irimia declares, “Technology is not just making your life difficult because it’s so clumsy at the beginning but it enables you to do some things that push the boundaries of what’s known.”

This will be the second running of the World Dicty Cell Race. Irimia and colleagues recently published an analysis of the 2014 edition demonstrating that while Dicty cells were slower, they were able to read the chemotaxic trail more accurately than HL-60 neutrophils. In the maze, HL-60 was twice as fast but half as accurate in finding the correct chemical attractant route. These findings are of interest beyond handicapping cell races. The paper notes, “While the first Race has mainly uncovered large differences between the model cell types, as opposed to among the engineered cell lines, a key goal of future races will be in evaluating and translating racing strategies into therapeutic strategies for human neutrophils.”

The current deadline for 2016 registration is July 31, but Irimia expects that it will be extended until after the international Dicty meeting ends in Tucson, AZ, on August 4. To register for the race, you need only declare that you want to take part, Irimia explains. Your racing cells won’t be due in Boston until shortly before the race in October. One big bonus this time will be the gift of a special microscope—essentially a webcam inside a 3-D printed plastic enclosure powered by open source software—that the race organizers will send to registered teams so each can test Dicty and neutrophil racers on a home track. Feel free to tweak your cells, says Irimia. This is one sport where genetic manipulation and/or drug enhancements are highly encouraged.

Eventually, Irimia hopes to move the race completely online. Competitors would submit videos and data instead of FedEx-ing their cells to Boston. Still, a race is a race, says Irimia. “For that to happen, we would have to figure out the software so that we would know that the images we get are real ones. There is still no substitute for the real thing.”


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