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The interaction between particles and lung cells

The German Research Foundation is funding microscopic studies on the influence of particulate matter

Freiburg, Oct 02, 2020

The interaction between particles and lung cells

Optical methods such as super-resolution microscopes and optical tweezers can be used to investigate how lung cells react to particulate matter. Illustration: Alexander Rohrbach

Tiny floating particles from polluted ambient air, known as particulate matter, represent a growing problem and a health risk for millions of people. An increased particulate matter pollution increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, lung diseases and cancer. As a result, the German Research Foundation is supporting a new project at the University of Freiburg with over 276,000 euros for the next three years. Prof. Dr. Alexander Rohrbach from the Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK) is using optical methods such as new super-resolution microscopes and optical tweezers to investigate how lung cells react to particulate matter.

Fine particles with diameters of less than one micrometer, i.e. one millionth of a meter (µm), can penetrate into human lung cells triggering inflammatory reactions. Ultrafine particulates, down to 0.1 µm in size, are especially difficult to study. They migrate even to lung ends, the alveoli, where oxygen is transported into the blood. To date, scientists have not been able to decipher the highly dynamic interaction mechanisms between particulate matter and individual cells.In particular, the cell mechanical concepts underlying the binding and uptake of particles are unknown. Rohrbach and his team now want to exploit optical tweezers, particle tracking, and super-resolution imaging, to monitor and analyse cellular reactions on scales of nanometers and milliseconds. This way, the Freiburg researcher wants to find out, for example, which biophysical principles control the uptake of particles into cells or how different types of lung cells handle the particles.

For this purpose, Rohrbach exposes particulate matter in a controlled manner to the periphery of lung cells to measure the changes in molecular binding strength and friction of the particle in contact with the cell. Using newly developed microscopes based on fast rotating blue laser light, he also investigates the reorganization of the cytoskeleton, which influences particle uptake. “We expect this research project to give us new insights to better assess the influence of particulate matter on lung diseases,” explains the Freiburg scientist. “We hope that we will disclose important new facts to provide a better scientific basis for the many controversial debates, such as those on the health consequences of car exhausts.”


Prof. Dr. Alexander Rohrbach
Department of Microsystems Engineering
University of Freiburg
Tel.: 0761/203-7536