Your skin cells are programmable, allowing them to be converted into other types of cells.
And now researchers have discovered how to reprogram them, making your body a potential gold mine of cells that can be used to heal wounds, treat stroke damage, and even restore function to aging organs.
A recent study published in Nature Nanotechnology describes the development of Tissue Nanotransfection (TNT), a technology that can convert an adult cell from one type to another.
The study was led by Chandan Sen, PhD, and L. James Lee, PhD, researchers at The Ohio State University. Sen and his colleagues applied the chip to the injured legs of mice, reprogramming the mice’s skin cells into vascular cells.
Within weeks, active blood vessels formed, saving the legs of the mice.
The technology is expected to be approved for human trials within a year.
What is nanotechnology?
This breakthrough in gene therapy is made possible by nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at a size at which unique properties of material emerge.
That means the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of materials are different at the atomic scale than at the larger scale we’re seeing on an everyday basis.
A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. A DNA molecule is 2 nanometers in diameter. Nanotechnology’s scale is roughly 1 to 100 nanometers.
At the nanoscale, gold reflects colors other than what it does at the scale visible to the unaided eye. This physical property can be used in medical tests to indicate infection or disease.
“Gold is yellow in color at the bulk level, but at the nanoscale level gold appears red,” said Dr. Lisa Friedersdorf, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
The NNCO coordinates the nanotechnology efforts of 20 federal government agencies.
“We now have tools to enable us to fabricate and control materials at the nanoscale,” Friedersdorf told Healthline. “Researchers can create a nanoparticle with a payload inside to deliver a concentrated drug release directly to targeted cells, for instance. Soon we’ll be able to identify and treat disease with precision. We could have personalized medicine and be able to target disease very carefully.”
How TNT works
TNT works by delivering a specific biological cargo (DNA, RNA, and plasma molecules) for cell conversion to a live cell using a nanotechnology-based chip.
This cargo is delivered by briefly zapping a chip with a small electrical charge.
Nanofabrication enabled Sen and his colleagues to create a chip that can deliver a cargo of genetic code into a cell.
“Think of the chip as a syringe but miniaturized,” Sen told Healthline. “We’re shooting genetic code into cells.”
The brief (one-tenth of a second) electrical charge of the postage stamp-sized device creates a pathway on the surface of the target cell that allows for the insertion of the genetic load.
“Imagine the cell as a tennis ball,” Sen said. “If the entire surface is electrocuted, the cell is damaged and its abilities are suppressed. Our technology opens up just 2 percent of the surface of the tennis ball. We insert the active cargo into the cell through that window, and then the window closes, so there is no damage.”
Cell reprogramming isn’t new, but scientists have previously focused on converting primarily stem cells into other types of cells. The process took place in labs.
“We disagreed with this approach,” Sen said. “When switching a cell in the lab, it’s in an artificial, sterile, and simple environment such as a petri dish. When it’s introduced into the body, it doesn’t perform as intended.”
“We went upside-down. We bypassed the lab process and moved the reprogramming process to the live body,” he explained.
This point-of-action capability will allow hospitals to adopt TNT sooner than if the process was limited to research facilities.
Sen’s team’s approach was to act first, figure it out second.
“There are a number of procedures and processes at play,” Sen said. “We don’t understand all of them, but we achieved our goal. Now that we’ve achieved our goal, we can get into the details of how it works.”
The healing of injuries by converting skin cells into vascular cells to regenerate blood vessels is one proven application of TNT.
Sen’s team also created nerve cells by the conversion process, injecting the newly formed neurotissue from the skin of a mouse with brain damage from stroke into its skull. The replacement rescued brain function that would otherwise have been lost.
Sen envisions additional uses for TNT, including organ recovery.
“We could go into a failing organ via an endoscopic catheter with a chip to reprogram cells and restore organ function,” Sen said. “It doesn’t have to be a skin cell. It could be excessive fat tissue.”
TNT could improve our quality of life as we age, too.
“I’m a runner, so I have joint issues,” Friedersdorf said. “Nanotechnology could enable the regeneration of cartilage. I’m hoping these technologies will be available when I’m in need of them.”
Sen and his team are currently searching for an industrial partner to manufacture chips designed to work for humans.
Then comes testing.
Ultimately, Sen hopes to drive rapid advancement in nanoscience and health.
“I’m a scientist, but this was inspired by the need to make an impact on health,” Sen said. “Our main goal is impact.”