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Human Genes Can Be Controlled With Electricity

Experimental technology uses pulses of electricity to trigger insulin production in mice with specially designed human pancreatic tissues.

Fitness trackers aid in maintaining good health by monitoring steps taken and heart rate, motivating individuals toward achieving cardio objectives.

Recent research conducted at ETH Zürich in Switzerland suggests the potential for future wearable devices—possibly incorporating implants and elements of genetic modification—to significantly enhance our well-being.

Novel technology developed by the Swiss researchers utilized minor electrical impulses to induce insulin production within test mice possessing specially engineered human pancreatic tissues. Termed as an ‘electrogenetic’ interface, this innovation might be employed to activate specific genes during times when assistance is required.

“Wearable electronic devices are increasingly pivotal in gathering personal health data for tailored medical interventions. Nevertheless, wearables currently lack the capability to directly orchestrate gene-focused treatments due to the absence of a direct electrogenetic interface. Here, we present this critical link.”

Encouraging the direct production of insulin could offer assistance to individuals dealing with diabetes, among other conditions. In this investigation, mice afflicted with type 1 diabetes were implanted with human pancreatic cells, subsequently receiving stimulation through a direct current sourced from acupuncture needles.

This approach is termed as direct current (DC)-actuated regulation technology, abbreviated as DART. According to the team responsible for its development, this method amalgamates the digital technology found in our devices with the analog technology inherent in our biological systems.

The electric stimulus generated non-toxic levels of reactive oxygen species, energetic molecules that—when appropriately managed—can initiate a process triggering cells engineered to respond to alterations in chemistry. Altering the regulation of cell DNA through manipulation of their epigenetic ‘on/off switch’ molecules holds potential in aiding various conditions influenced by genetics.

A particular set of genes is inherent from birth, and although this genetic code generally remains consistent throughout our lives, alterations in the activation or expression of genes may occur with age and lifestyle changes. DART has the potential to potentially reverse some of these modifications.

Through this method, the normalization of blood sugar levels in the diabetic mice was successfully achieved by the researchers.

Undoubtedly, a considerable distance remains to be covered before a Fitbit-like device can manage diabetes. Nonetheless, this serves as an intriguing proof of concept.

Among the numerous forthcoming challenges is adapting this technology for use in compact devices. Encouragingly, DART demands minimal power consumption: for instance, three AA batteries could sustain its operation for five years, with electrical signals administered once daily.

The team expresses confidence in further developing and broadening the scope of this technology beyond solely inducing insulin production. In the future, health wearables might transcend mere statistical reporting, potentially facilitating various metabolic interventions directly, as noted by the researchers.


Wearable electronic devices are playing a rapidly expanding role in the acquisition of individuals’ health data for personalized medical interventions; however, wearables cannot yet directly program gene-based therapies because of the lack of a direct electrogenetic interface. Here we provide the missing link by developing an electrogenetic interface that we call direct current (DC)-actuated regulation technology (DART), which enables electrode-mediated, time- and voltage-dependent transgene expression in human cells using DC from batteries. DART utilizes a DC supply to generate non-toxic levels of reactive oxygen species that act via a biosensor to reversibly fine-tune synthetic promoters. In a proof-of-concept study in a type 1 diabetic male mouse model, a once-daily transdermal stimulation of subcutaneously implanted microencapsulated engineered human cells by energized acupuncture needles (4.5 V DC for 10 s) stimulated insulin release and restored normoglycemia. We believe this technology will enable wearable electronic devices to directly program metabolic interventions.

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