‘Internet of the body’ device to regulate genes externally

Bioelectric remote control of cell signalling drives synthetic biology progress: tests trigger bioengineered cells to release insulin.

A team at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zürich, has demonstrated that gene expression can be directly activated and regulated using electrical signals activated from outside the body. This is a further interesting development of Neuroceuticals: replacing drugs with an algorithm.

Longevity.Technology: Sci-fi, so good. This story hasn’t leapt from an Iain M Banks novel about The Culture, but from a paper in the journal Science. Moving from the Internet of Things to Internet of the Body (IoB), researchers hope to network the body, using external AI to monitor and initiate repair at a cellular level.

Cellular behaviour can be controlled electronically, but until now that has required invasive bioelectronic interfaces which rely on electrical conduction between device electrodes and bioengineered cells. ETH researchers have created a prototype which uses electric fields to control cell function via a wearable, wireless device.

The device was used to wirelessly trigger an on-demand insulin release inside the body. When tested in mouse models of type 1 diabetes, the device was able to trigger bioengineered cells to release insulin; this had the effect of stabilising the animals’ blood glucose levels within minutes.

Once scaled up, this technology would have a profound, life-enhancing effect on diabetics, as a system could be developed that would do away with constant blood tests and glucose monitoring, implanting instead devices that contain insulin-producing cells and an electronic control unit. If a blood sugar spike is detected, a smartphone app would trigger an electrical signal, causing cells to release the insulin necessary to regulate blood sugar levels. This is an elegant alternative to the artificial pancreases that are in development.

ETH researchers used engineered human pancreatic β cells and a voltage-gated calcium channel to achieve precision-controlled electrostimulation-driven insulin production and secretion. The modified β cells were also able to be reused for several weeks after the initial deployment [1]. We would hope that refinement of the device in the future would extend the lifespan.

Prototype of the implant: A cable connects the round cell-​filled chamber with the control electronics (green). The whole construction is about the size of a two Swiss francs coin.
(Photo: Krzysztof Krawczyk / ETH Zurich)

The β cells implanted in a minute capsule attached to a circuit board that is both the signal receiver and electronic control. A radio signal transmitted from outside the body triggers the circuit board to transmit a signal to the cells which stimulates a pathway to induce insulin production. Cell machinery packs the insulin into vesicles that fuse with the cell membrane and release their insulin cargo; the whole process takes just a few minutes.

“We’ve wanted to directly control gene expression using electricity for a long time; now we’ve finally succeeded…”

Lead researcher Dr Martin Fussenegger, Professor of Biotechnology and Bioengineering at ETH Zürich, said: “We’ve wanted to directly control gene expression using electricity for a long time; now we’ve finally succeeded … Our implant could be connected to the cyber universe. A device of this kind would enable people to be fully integrated into the digital world and become part of the Internet of Things – or even the Internet of the Body [2].”

[1] https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6494/993
[2] https://ethz.ch/en/news-and-events/eth-news/news/2020/05/using-electrical-stimulus-to-regulate-genes.html

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash