Scientists Control Human DNA with Electricity in ‘Leap Forward’, Study Reports

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. 

The same group at ETH Zürich had originally demonstrated that genes could be electrically activated as part of a study that was published in 2020. This new modified design simplifies the initial design by implanting human pancreatic cells into mice with type 1 diabetes. The researchers then used electrically-stimulating acupuncture needles to switch on the exact genes involved in regulating doses of insulin, a hormone that is essential for the treatment of diabetes. As a consequence, the blood glucose concentrations of the model mice returned to normal levels. 

Huang and his colleagues said this electrical fine-tuning of mammalian gene expression sets the stage for “wearable-based electro-controlled gene expression with the potential to connect medical interventions to an internet of the body or the internet of things,” according to the study.

“While we chose DART-controlled insulin production for proof-of-concept validation, it should be straightforward to link DART control to the in situ production and dosing of a wide range of biopharmaceuticals,” the team concluded. “We believe simple electrogenetic interfaces such as DART that functionally interconnect analog biological systems with digital electronic devices hold great promise for a variety of future gene- and cell-based therapies.”


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