Turn up insulin production with remote-controlled genes

By heating up metal nanoparticles with radio waves, researchers have remotely activated genes inside of living animals. In this case, they successfully raised insulin levels in mice.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

Researchers have developed a way to switch on certain genes inside living animals, remotely.

The new method lets them manipulate the expression of genes without using drugs or other invasive methods on the patients (mice for now). One day, this could be used in medical procedures that require genes to be triggered on demand.

Well, it’s not quite as easy as pushing a button to channel surf, but Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University and his colleagues did provide this first proof of principle.

  1. First, they coated iron oxide nanoparticles with antibodies that bind to specific ion channels. (These channels sit on the surface of cells and allow ions to flow into the cells.)
  2. They injected these nanoparticles into tumors growing under the skin of mice.
  3. Then the researchers sent radio waves into the living tissue – using a magnetic field generated by a mini device similar to an MRI machine.
  4. These low frequency radio waves heated up the metal nanoparticles embedded within the cells. And since ion channels are temperature-sensitive, they opened up when 42 degrees Celsius was reached.
  5. This allowed calcium to flow into the cells, which triggered more chemical signals that ultimately led to the expression of the target gene. In this case, the signals switched on an engineered calcium-sensitive gene that produces insulin.
  6. After 30 minutes of radio-wave exposure, insulin levels in the mice had increased and their blood sugar levels had dropped.

The team didn’t develop the method to managing diabetes in particular. It’s just that insulin and blood sugar levels provide convenient physiological readouts for checking that the remote control is working.

Friedman's current method isn’t practical for the clinic because it isn’t ethical to grow tumors in humans, so they’re are planning to test alternative delivery systems for the nanoparticles.

The work was published in Science last week.

[Via Nature News]

Image from Stanley et. al, Science

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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