Ultrashort electrical pulses open a new gateway into biological cells

Karl H. Schoenbach, Ravindra P. Joshi, Juergen F. Kolb, Nianyong Chen, Michael Stacey, Peter F. Blackmore, E. Stephen Buescher, Stephen J. Beebe

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364 Scopus citations


An electrical model for biological cells predicts that for pulses with durations shorter than the charging time of the outer membrane, there is an increasing probability of electric field interactions with intracellular structures. Experimental studies in which human cells were exposed to pulsed electric fields of up to 300-kV/cm amplitude, with durations as short as 10 ns, have confirmed this hypothesis. The observed effects include the breaching of intracellular granule membranes without permanent damage to the cell membrane, abrupt rises in intracellular free calcium levels, and enhanced expression of genes. At increased electric fields, the application of submicrosecond pulses induces apoptosis (programmed cell death) in biological cells, an effect that has been shown to reduce the growth of tumors. Possible applications of the intracellular electroeffect are enhancing gene delivery to the nucleus, controlling cell functions that depend on calcium release (causing cell immobilization), and treating tumors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1122-1136
Number of pages15
JournalProceedings of the IEEE
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2004


  • Apoptosis
  • Biological cells
  • Calcium release
  • Electroporation
  • Intracellular electroeffects
  • Ultrashort electrical pulses


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