An illustration of pancreatic cells.

In what they believe is a wearable breakthrough, researchers stimulated engineered cells to control insulin expression in mice. [Illustration by Nathan Devery via Adobe Stock]

Researchers at ETH Zurich in Switzerland say they’ve made a wearable breakthrough, developing an electrogenetic interface to enable transgene expression in human cells.

They call their work DART, for direct current (DC)-actuated regulation technology. It uses power “to generate non-toxic levels of reactive oxygen species that act via a biosensor to reversibly fine-tune synthetic promoters,” they said in a paper published in Nature Metabolism.

“We designed an electrogenetic interface consisting of genetic components that render human cells responsive to DC-triggered electrostimulation and enable exclusive, DC-adjustable transgene expression,” the researcher said.

The researchers believe their technology will enable direct programming of metabolic interventions through wearable devices.

“Rapid, electronics-free direct battery-powered low-voltage DC control of therapeutic transgenes in human cells is a leap forward, representing the missing link that will enable wearables to control genes in the not-so-distant future,” they said.

The researchers used the technology for remote control of insulin expression in mice with type 1 diabetes for proof of concept. Employing acupuncture needle electrodes to stimulate engineered cells implanted under the skin, they found just 4.5 V DC for 10 seconds each day triggered enough insulin production to decrease post-meal blood sugar spikes and get glucose levels back to normal. The controls are a simple on-off switch.

The researchers tested various off-the-shelf batteries, including AAs, AAAs and the CR2032 lithium batteries that power watches and other common wearable devices.

“DART provides a reversible and tunable electrogenetic interface operated by simple, readily available low-voltage DC sources. … Notably, DART requires very little power and overall energy to control target gene expression,” the researchers said.

They learned that three AA batteries could provide enough power for more than five years of daily dosing.

The studies found no impact on surrounding tissues, and the potential applications are wide ranging.

“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 researchers said. “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, including closed-loop genetic interventions, real-time dosing and global telemetric monitoring by medical staff or algorithms.”