A Remote Control for Your Body

by Gabrielle DeMarco on June 12, 2012

This will be my last post on The Approach. Thank you to all of our readers who have taken this little research blog and helped it to grow into what it is today. I leave Rensselaer for a new position, but I will now join the members of our loyal readership to keep tabs on the talented Rensselaer scientists and my intrepid fellow bloggers. Thank you for reading. Enjoy science! –Gabrielle

We are all familiar with the remote control. You know that thing that is constantly lost in your couch cushions? Granted the humble remote control is no longer a wonder of modern engineering, but it still gets the job done. From across the room you can change the channel from yet another episode of “Pawn Stars” to the season finale of “Mad Men”.  Now, image a remote control for your body.

Engineer and chemist Jonathan Dordick, who is also the director of our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), recently worked with RPI Hall of Famer and Rockefeller University scientist Jeffrey Friedman on research published in the May 4 edition of the famed journal Science that essentially remotely controls the cells within the body. And how is this feat accomplished? Nanotechnology.

Cells have walls.  Like a castle, those walls must be very hard to penetrate. But, things still need to move in and out of the cellular kingdom. To accomplish these movements of materials cells have gateways called channels that are heavily guarded much like a castle gate. Only certain materials can open these channels. One of those materials is calcium. Under the right conditions, calcium can open up these gateways and pass through a cell to jumpstart a variety of functions including muscle contraction and the production of essential materials like insulin.

The scientists used nanomaterials to highjack one of these cellular gateways. The nanomaterials were comprised of iron oxide coated with a specialized assortment of bioengineered antibodies.  These antibodies seek out and attach to specific parts of another cell depending on their composition. In this case, the antibodies were built by the scientists to target a specific cellular channel whose opening trigger the production of insulin.

Now comes the amazing part: Once these bionanomaterials were in place in the cellular channels of mice, the scientists used gentle radio frequencies to heat the cells from outside the mouse bodies and the channels actually opened up in response! Calcium flooded through the gateway and triggered the release of insulin in the mice. As a result, the blood sugar of the mice was lowered. And thus we have remote control of insulin production.

But, as with any scientists, they are quick to point out that nano-insulin remote controls are still many scientific papers aware from fruition in humans. For one thing, a practical method of delivery of the nanoparticles to the specific point in the body they are required needs to be developed. In addition, multiple safety hurdles will need to carefully vetted by scientists alongside the Food and Drug Administration.

Nevertheless, the discovery marks a very important achievement for modern science. Imagine a world where doctors can inject you with nanomaterials and then remotely tell the cells of your central nervous system to kill a brain tumor. Sounds farfetched, but so did heart transplants fifty years ago. Is the future of medicine nanotechnology? Dordick and Friedman are itching to find out.  And so am I.