Brain patterns that you are not even aware of could trigger the release of drugs to treat epilepsy or pain as a result of technology which is already in development.
It’s one of the radical innovations made possible by research in the field of synthetic biology, where scientists are cutting and pasting DNA into cells to make them do things they could not do before.
‘Synthetic biology was created when the engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electric engineers, realised that biological components are not so different than stones to build bridges or electronic circuits to design computers,’ said Professor Martin Fussenegger, whose laboratory at ETH Zurich in Switzerland is leading the field.
Prof. Fussenegger's colleague Marc Folcher in the European Research Council-funded team is using the technology to adapt cells so that they produce a drug when a light is shined on them.
They use a brain wave monitor to record mental activity. This could then be transmitted to a controller which analyses the signal and, when needed, activates a light in an implant inside the body.
‘It’s a little plastic device where you have the LED, and you have the electronics in there,’ said Prof. Fussenegger, whose team has written a paper on the technology which was published in the science magazine Nature Communications on 11 November. ‘The mind-brain waves which are processed then go on to this device and precisely illuminate engineered cells which are also in this implant.’
One of the really interesting things about the technology is that it could be adapted to pick up unconscious brain waves as well as conscious thinking activity. That means it could, for example, pick up the fact that someone is about to have an epileptic seizure before they are aware of it, and administer drugs.
Prof. Fussenegger's lab at ETH Zurich is pioneering in the field of synthetic biology. Photo: Dominic Buettner
‘If you talk about the mind you have two different levels, the first level is attentional control, which means I think, I concentrate, and then something happens in my body,’ said Prof. Fussenegger. ‘And the second is you have the unintentional.’
New biological systems
The point is that these are alternative biological systems which sense a condition and respond by administering a drug. ‘We have prosthetics for everything in our body but it is limited to mechanical devices,’ said Prof. Fussenegger. ‘We have never done prosthesis at the metabolic level to rewire metabolic pathways in the body.’
‘We have prosthetics for everything in our body but it is limited to mechanical devices.’
Professor Martin Fussenegger, ETH Zurich, Switzerland
His team is developing a system which can tackle obesity by sensing when there is too much fat in a person’s blood and then releasing a hormone which makes them feel full. They are also working on an application to treat diabetes whereby insulin is released if the system senses that the glucose rate in someone's blood is too high.
While they believe it will take 20 years before the technology is ready for patients, Prof. Fussenegger believes it’s the kind of prosthetic augmentation that the human body will need if it is to adapt successfully to the modern environment where people get sick because they spend too much of their lives sitting.
‘In order to become really prosthetic we need to get a closed loop,’ he said. ‘Which means your iPhone measures your glucose levels, your blood fat levels, and then triggers an implant to take counter measures such as induce satiety or increase the insulin levels.
‘In order to really face the medical challenges of the future we need to have new treatment concepts.’
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