Scientists have demonstrated that human genes can be controlled with electricity, a breakthrough that could pave the way toward wearable devices that program genes to perform medical interventions, reports a new study.
In a novel experiment, researchers were able to trigger insulin production in human cells by sending electrical currents through an “electrogenetic” interface that activates targeted genes. Future applications of this interface could be developed to deliver therapeutic doses to treat a wide range of conditions, including diabetes, by directly controlling human DNA with electricity.
There is currently an explosion of interest in medical wearables, which are health-centric portable technologies such as fitness trackers, biosensors, blood pressure monitors, and portable electrocardiogram devices. Smart wearables have become an essential tool for many doctors and patients, spurring researchers to continue developing novel platforms for collecting medical data or even performing medical interventions.
Now, scientists led by Jinbo Huang, a molecular biologist at ETH Zürich, have invented a battery-powered interface that they call “the direct current (DC)-actuated regulation technology,” or DART, that can trigger specific gene responses with an electric current. Huang and his colleagues described the device as “a leap forward, representing the missing link that will enable wearables to control genes in the not-so-distant future,” according to a study published on Monday in Nature.
“Electronic and biological systems function in radically different ways and are largely incompatible due to the lack of a functional communication interface,” the team said in the study. “While biological systems are analog, programmed by genetics, updated slowly by evolution and controlled by ions flowing through insulated membranes, electronic systems are digital, programmed by readily updatable software and controlled by electrons flowing through insulated wires.”
“Electrogenetic interfaces that would enable electronic devices to control gene expression remain the missing link in the path to full compatibility and interoperability of the electronic and genetic worlds,” the researchers added.
With that in mind, the team aimed to forge a direct connection between our “analog” DNA, which is the biological alphabet that governs the life-cycles of all organisms on Earth, and the electronic systems that form the basis of digital technologies.