3 D cellmodell
© HS Mannheim
2 April 2020

Optical biosensors: Completing the puzzle of taste research

Scientists from BRAIN AG and Mannheim University of Applied Sciences have written a comprehensive scientific review on current methods in taste research and the potential of optical biosensors.

As is well known, people have different tastes – but what in current usage usually refers to the general subjective perception of things or states has its origin in the sensory perception of taste by the tongue. The human tongue, with its approximately 25,000 sensory cells or taste receptors, perceives the five basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami ("savory" or tasting like meat). The relatively young field of taste research is investigating exactly how this works.

Research into the taste and taste modulation is not only important for the food industry, but also plays an important role in the pharmaceutical industry and in medical research. But how can taste and its modulation by new natural substances be investigated in vitro, i.e. in experiments outside the human or animal body? In recent years, taste researchers have usually used taste receptors in a kidney cell model for this purpose.

The crux of the matter: cells whose origin is the kidney or the tongue have a completely different biological cell background and cannot be easily compared with each other. An alternative tongue cell model was therefore desirable.

At BRAIN AG a team of scientists has been working on the development of such an alternative cell model for around seven years. The goal was to be able to investigate many natural taste modulators, i.e. substances that bind to taste receptors and thus induce a signaling cascade in the tongue cell model, in the laboratory.

Screening of thousands of natural substances

The result of the development work at BRAIN was so-called Human Tongue Cell Technology, also known as HTC technology. This technology makes it possible to screen thousands of natural substances - including previously unknown ones - for their modulation abilities without time limits. A human subject can only perform a few tests per day – so high-throughput screening in advance makes sense if you want to screen thousands of substances in order to identify a few suitable ones.

During the development work, several successful applications based on the HTC technology have already emerged in the course of research cooperation arrangements with industrial and scientific partners. Scientific cooperation with molecular and cell biologists at Mannheim University of Applied Sciences has proved particularly fruitful. This joint research has already resulted in several scientific publications – most recently in the scientific journal "Sensors". The review entitled "Sensing Senses: Optical Biosensors to Study Gustation" provides a comprehensive overview of current findings in taste research and the potential of optical biosensors in this field of research.

The experts also venture a look into the future: they report on possible new approaches to complete the missing pieces of the complex puzzle of taste. They also present ideas for novel cell-based sensor systems that mimic the in vivo situation even better and take into account the costs, and, last but not least, ethical issues involved.

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