Computational and Experimental Investigation of the Critical Behavior Observed in Cell Signaling Related to Electrically Perturbed Lipid Systems

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Virginia Tech


Problem Statement: The use of pulsed electric fields (PEFs) as a tumor treatment modality is receiving increased traction. A typical clinical procedure involves insertion of a pair of electrodes into the tumor and administration of PEFs (amplitude: ~1 kV/cm; pulse-width: 100 μs). This leaves a zone of complete cell death and a sub-lethal zone where a fraction of the cells survive. There is substantial evidence of an anti-tumor systemic immune profile in animal patients treated with PEFs. However, the mechanism behind such immune profile alterations remains unknown, and the effect of PEFs on cell signaling within sub-lethal zones remains largely unexplored. Moreover, different values of a PEF pulse parameter, for e.g. the pulse-widths of 100 μs and 100 ns, may have different effects on cell signaling. Thus, the challenge of answering the mechanistic questions is compounded by the large PEF parameter space consisting of different combinations of pulse-widths, amplitudes, and exposure times.

Intellectual merit: This Ph.D. research provides proof that sub-lethal PEFs can enhance anti-tumor signaling in triple negative breast cancer cells by abrogating thymic stromal lymphopoietin signaling and enhancing stimulatory proteins such as the tumor necrosis factor. Furthermore, experimental evidence produced during this Ph.D. research demonstrates that PEFs may not directly impact the intracellular mitochondrial membrane at clinically relevant field amplitudes. As demonstrated in this work, PEFs may influence the mitochondria via an indirect route such as disruption of the actin cytoskeleton and/or alteration of ionic environment in the cytoplasm due to cell membrane permeabilization. Thus, a reductionist approach to understanding the influence of PEFs on cell signaling is proposed by limiting the study to membrane dynamics. To overcome the problem of investigating the entire PEF parameter space, this Ph.D. research proposes a first-principle thermodynamic approach of scaling the PEF parameter space such that an understanding developed in one regime of PEF pulse parameter values can be used to understand other regimes of the parameter space. Demonstration of the validity of this scaling model is provided by coupling Monte-Carlo methods for density-of-states with the steepest-entropy-ascent quantum thermodynamic framework for the non-equilibrium prediction of the lipid membrane dynamics.



Electric field perturbation, Cancer, Thermodynamics, Cell signaling, Ising model