A radio-controlled mouse might sound like a child’s toy, but this version is flesh and blood and not for playing with. Genetically altered mice have shown that it is possible to regulate processes within the body remotely, opening the door to new ways of treating chronic disease.
Remarkably, the mice can respond to a radio signal by releasing insulin, which lowers blood sugar. One day this might allow people with type 1 diabetes to use an app on their phone to alleviate their disease at a cellular level. Jonathan Dordick of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, who was part of the team that carried out the work, says you can imagine tailoring the technique to treat other disorders, too.
To test the concept, the team introduced three genes into mouse liver cells. One encoded an iron-containing protein called ferritin. This was placed next to a gene that coded for a protein that acts like a heat-sensitive door, allowing calcium to surge into the cell whenever ferritin was exposed to the radio signal. The third gene coded for insulin but was only active when there was a flood of calcium.
The team hoped this set-up would allow radio waves to trigger insulin release. Sure enough, the engineered mice showed a significant drop in blood glucose for several hours after being exposed to the radio signal.
The work is a long way from being used therapeutically in people, but Dordick says it is a first step to offering fast external control over many conditions. In Parkinson’s disease, for instance, the same approach could be used to lessen jerky movements by delivering dopamine to the brain.
“If it is true that ferritin could be used, this is very good news,” says Arnd Pralle of the University at Buffalo in New York, although he cautions that further work is needed to confirm the results.