What was once the stuff of science fiction is now becoming a reality: entire organs may soon be "healed" by simply touching a small chip.
A team of researchers from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Ohio State's College of Engineering, both in Columbus, developed a groundbreaking technology that could soon restore almost any organ.
The device changes cell function in a non-invasive way. It relies on a type of nanotechnology called tissue nanotransfection, which can reprogram living adult cells into any other type of cell.
The new study was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, and the research was jointly led by Dr. Chandan Sen, who is director of Ohio State's Center for Regenerative Medicine and Cell-Based Therapies, and L. James Lee, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State's College of Engineering.
How the technology works
The breakthrough technology relies on two main elements, and the first one is the chip itself. Using nanotechnology, the scientists designed the device so that it could inject a so-called genetic load into the body's cells.
The second element is the genetic load itself: the chip carries a specific genetic code in the form of DNA or RNA, which, when applied to cells, changes them from their previous structure and function to the structure and functions needed to repair the injury. The video below shows the device in action.
As the study authors explain, the reprogramming factors are delivered into the cell using a "highly intense and focused electric field through arrayed nanochannels." In other words, the chip is placed onto the skin and with a simple touch, a small and nearly imperceptible electrical current forges channels into the tissue.
The DNA or RNA is sent through these nanochannels and starts to reprogram the cells, giving them a new "identity." As Dr. Sen explains, "It takes just a fraction of a second. You simply touch the chip to the wounded area, then remove it. At that point, the cell reprogramming begins."
Device is proven 98 percent effective
The team tested the device in mice by applying the technology to the skin of their injured legs, the blood flow of which was blocked. The device successfully transformed the mice's skin cells into vascular cells. "Within a week we began noticing the transformation," says Dr. Sen.
In the second week, the skin cells had turned into functional blood vessels, and by the third week, the rodents' legs were fully healed - with no other pharmacological intervention.
"What's even more exciting is that it not only works on the skin, but on any type of tissue," he adds.
In a second set of experiments, the researchers used the device to transform skin cells into brain cells, helping to restore the region that had been damaged by stroke.
Specifically, the middle cerebral artery had been blocked. However, the researchers transplanted the newly obtained brain cells into the rodents' brain, which repaired the damage caused by the stroke. The scientists report that within weeks, the mice's brains were fully functioning again.
"This is difficult to imagine, but it is achievable, successfully working about 98 percent of the time. With this technology, we can convert skin cells into elements of any organ with just one touch. This process only takes less than a second and is non-invasive."
Dr. Chandan Sen
The researchers explain that compared with other in vivo transfection technologies that use viruses - wherein gene delivery can cause serious side effects - this technology is focused on single cells and works non-invasively. "The difference with our technology is how we deliver the DNA into the cells," says Dr. Lee.
Given the simple, non-invasive, and non-pharmacological nature of the technology, the scientists are hoping to move the device into human clinical trials within a year.