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Sifting through cells using heat

Published online 30 November 2016

Laser-beam-induced heat and a nano-wrap reveal heat diffusion patterns in living cells.

Biplab Das

A research team from Saudi Arabia has created a technique that reveals the thermal-transport properties of a living cell, which is potentially useful in identifying the different types of cells including cancer cells.

The scientists achieved this by trapping and heating the cell in a nanomembrane-based wrap1

Be it a healthy or a diseased cell, living cells have their own distinct patterns of heat diffusion. But this is a first where their thermal characteristics were used as indicators to separate healthy cells from diseased ones. 

“Our ultimate goal is to use this technique to study the effects of diseases on the thermal properties of single living cells, thereby opening new avenues for diagnosing and treating various diseases,” says Rami T. EIAfandy, the lead author of the study. 

Boon S. Ooi and his colleagues from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia, shone a pulsed, focused laser beam on a gallium nitride nanomembrane wrapped around a living cell. The beam heated the nanomembrane which transferred the heat to the cell, changing its thermal-transport properties. 

The change in the thermal-transport properties of the cell changed the temperature and optical properties of the nanomembrane which, in turn, revealed the thermal properties of the living cell. 

When the living cell was swapped with breast and cervical cancer cells in the lab, the nanomembrane similarly revealed their thermal properties. The scientists observed how cervical cancer cells expressed different thermal properties than those of breast cancer cells.


  1. EIAfandy, R. T. et al. Nanomembrane-based, thermal-transport biosensor for living Cells. Small (2016).