Science News

Radio controlled cells make insulin

Thu, 3rd May 2012

Chris Smith

Cells capable of releasing insulin in response to a radio signal have been engineered by scientists in America.

Writing in the journal Science, Rockefeller University researcher InsulinSarah Stanley and her colleagues explain how, by using a modified temperature-sensor (TRPV1) normally found on nerve cells and decorating it with iron oxide nanoparticles, they could make cultured cells respond to low-frequency (465kHz) radiowaves.

These are absorbed preferentially by the nanoparticles, which warm up slightly and trigger the heat sensor. This, in turn, opens a pore on the surface of the cell allowing calcium to enter, which the team were able to measure.

Next, to test whether it would be possible to control genes using this technique, the researchers constructed a DNA sequence containing a copy of the insulin gene placed next to a series of three genetic "switches" sensitive to calcium levels. This was added to the test cells.

Now, when they zapped their cells with radiowaves for 10 seconds, the researchers found they could turn on and off the production of insulin. And when a batch of similar insulin-secreting cells were injected into mice, it was possible to produce significant changes in the animals' blood sugar levels using the radio signals.

To refine the system, the team have also developed a modified gene sequence that enables cells to make their own iron nanoparticles, avoiding the need to apply these manually.

The use of radiowaves to control cells like this is a huge leap forward, because unlike previous attempts to achieve this, using visible or near-infrared light that has limited tissue-penetrating abilities, low-frequency radiowaves can travel deep into tissues without difficulty but are also very safe.

"This approach could theoretically be used to treat protein deficiencies by providing regulated expression of proteins that are difficult to synthesise or to deliver," the team point out in their paper.


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Not necessarily regulating the insulin levels, but giving one the ability to essentially give a dose of insulin without a shot.

Now, if they could combine the technology with prickless blood sugar monitoring.
CliffordK, Fri, 4th May 2012

That sounds great, however......... how do you go about protecting the cells from radio emissions not intended to activate the release of proteins?

If cells can be engineered to produce Insulin, then can the same technique be used to make other types of cell release lets say Adrenalin for example?

In the future will it be possible to listen to music that really does send you to sleep, or a radio alarm clock that wakes you up by essentially giving you a shot of caffeine?  Aaron_Thomas, Sun, 6th May 2012

Yea my thoughts exactly. You would not want a massive uncontrolled insulin release and crash every time you enter a venue with free wifi for example :)

Sleep music would be possible, triggering synthesis and release of melatonin.
As for the caffeine alarm clock, that'd be a bit more difficult, because a human body can create insulin or melatonin, but it can't create caffeine.. Nizzle, Mon, 7th May 2012

Undoubtedly, though, while one is tinkering with genes, one could add the plant genes to produce caffeine, or cocaine for that matter.  Hopefully some mad scientist doesn't decide to make a drugged up society.

As far as the insulin.
Of course, the alternative would be to actually culture beta islet cells.  Perhaps determine the lethal antigen/antibody combination in Type 1 diabetics, and leave that antigen out of the cells cultures if possible.

With any luck, with cultured beta islet cells, one could get natural insulin production and regulation.

This article indicates that the errant antigenicity may in fact be INSULIN.

That would make it very difficult to remove the antigenicity of the cultured beta islet cells.

However, on the bright side, this article seems to indicate a potential future treatment/vaccine for Type 1 diabetes, at least if it is caught early.

If Type 1 diabetes is ever cured, perhaps the radio cells would still have some utility with Type 2 diabetes in which higher than normal doses of insulin are often required. CliffordK, Mon, 7th May 2012

Speaking of plant genes... Imagine what would happen if we introduced a working chlorophyll system to our skin. We would become (little) green men, able to survive much longer on water only :) Nizzle, Wed, 9th May 2012

Speaking of plant genes... Imagine what would happen if we introduced a working chlorophyll system to our skin. We would become (little) green men, able to survive much longer on water only :)

Naked green people!!!

One would likely only get a small fraction of one's energy supply on a hot summer day from photosynthesis, but perhaps every little bit counts.  If we could decrease our caloric input by 10%, that would be that much less food that we would need.  Of course, in modern society, the issue is often too much caloric input.

Hmmm, there is a green sea slug that does photosynthesis.

Apparently it doesn't actually make chloroplasts, but steals them from algae.

CliffordK, Wed, 9th May 2012

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