Can brain implants with lasers ‘reprogram’ our genomes?

Tiny brain implants can wirelessly control FGFR1—a gene that plays a key role in how humans grow from embryos to adults—in lab-grown brain tissue, according to new research.

The research represents a step forward toward genetic manipulation technology that could upend the treatment of cancer, as well as the prevention and treatment of schizophrenia and other neurological illnesses. It centers on the creation of a new subfield of research the study’s authors are calling “optogenomics,” or controlling the human genome through laser light and nanotechnology.

“The potential of optogenomic interfaces is enormous,” says coauthor Josep M. Jornet, associate professor in the electrical engineering department in University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It could drastically reduce the need for medicinal drugs and other therapies for certain illnesses. It could also change how humans interact with machines.”

What is ‘optogenomics’?

For the past 20 years, scientists have been combining optics and genetics—the field of optogenetics—with a goal of employing light to control how cells interact with each other.

By doing this, one could potentially develop new treatments for diseases by correcting the miscommunications that occur between cells. While promising, this research does not directly address malfunctions in genetic blueprints that guide human growth and underlie many diseases.

The new research begins to tackle this issue because FGFR1—it stands for Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptor 1—holds sway over roughly 4,500 other genes, about one-fifth of the human genome, according to Human Genome Project estimates, says study coauthor Michal K. Stachowiak, professor in the pathology and anatomical sciences department in the university’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“In some respects, it’s like a boss gene,” says Stachowiak. “By controlling FGFR1, one can theoretically prevent widespread gene dysregulations in schizophrenia or in breast cancer and other types of cancer.”

Turning the gene on and off

The research team was able to manipulate FGFR1 by creating tiny photonic brain implants. These wireless devices include nano-lasers and nano-antennas and, in the future, nano-detectors.

Researchers inserted the implants into the brain tissue, which was grown from induced pluripotent stem cells and enhanced with light-activated molecular toggle switches. They then triggered different laser lights—common blue laser, red laser, and far-red laser—onto the tissue.

The interaction allowed researchers to activate and deactivate FGFR1 and its associated cellular functions—essentially hacking the gene. The work may eventually enable doctors to manipulate patients’ genomic structure, providing a way to prevent and correct gene abnormalities, says Stachowiak.

The development is far from entering the doctor’s office or hospital, but the research team is excited about next steps, which include testing in 3D “mini-brains” and cancerous tissue.

The research appears in the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Additional study authors are from the University at Buffalo, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Memorial Cancer Center and Institute of Oncology in Poland. Support for the research came from the US National Science Foundation.

Source: University at Buffalo