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Human Genes Can Be Controlled With Electricity, Study Reveals

Human Genes Controlled with Electricity
Using direct current technology, human genes can be controlled with electricity. Credit: Caroline Davis2010 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A recent study conducted by ETH Zürich in Switzerland introduces the possibility of advanced wearable gadgets (possibly with some implants and genetic modifications) directly improving our well-being.

The Swiss researchers developed an innovative technology that utilized gentle electrical pulses to stimulate insulin production in mice with human-like pancreatic tissues.

They refer to it as an ‘electrogenetic’ interface, which has the potential to activate specific genes when our bodies need assistance.

In their published paper, the researchers state that wearable electronic devices are increasingly becoming essential in collecting people’s health information for personalized medical interventions.

Yet, wearable devices currently cannot directly facilitate gene-based treatments due to the absence of a direct electrogenetic interface. However, in this study, the researchers aim to fill this gap by introducing the missing link.

Use of direct current (DC) to stimulate insulin production

Stimulating insulin production directly could offer significant benefits to individuals with diabetes, particularly those with type 1 diabetes. In this research, scientists implanted human pancreatic cells into mice afflicted with type 1 diabetes.

They then employed a direct current generated from acupuncture needles to stimulate these cells.

The team calls it the Direct Current (DC)-actuated Regulation Technology, or simply DART. Moreover, DART combines the digital technology of our gadgets with the analog technology of our biological bodies, according to the researchers.

The electricity produced non-harmful amounts of reactive oxygen species, which are energetic molecules. When controlled properly, these molecules can initiate a process that activates engineered cells, responding to chemical changes.

By modifying the regulation of the cell’s DNA through the manipulation of their epigenetic ‘on/off switch’ molecules, this approach holds the potential to aid in various conditions influenced by genetics.

DART could undo some of the gene expression changes

When we are born, we inherit a specific set of genes, and although these genetic codes generally stay the same throughout our lives, the activation or expression of these genes can vary as we age and alter our lifestyles.

DART offers a potential way to reverse some of these changes, providing a means to undo certain shifts in gene expression.

Using this method, the researchers succeeded in restoring the blood sugar levels of diabetic mice to a normal range. While we are far from having a Fitbit-like device that can manage diabetes, this achievement serves as an exciting proof of concept.

One of the many challenges ahead involves implementing this technology in small devices. The promising aspect is that DART requires minimal power, as it can operate for up to five years with just three AA batteries, while electric signals are applied only once a day.

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