Researchers report breakthrough in cell regeneration
By JOANNE VIVIANO GateHouse Media Ohio Published: August 9, 2017 3:00 AM
- 1 of 2 Photos | View More Photos
In what researchers consider a major scientific leap, a team at The Ohio State University has discovered a new way of turning skin cells into any type of cells the body might need, a technology that has limitless potential, from regenerating a wounded limb to repairing a brain after stroke to healing a damaged heart.
The process involves placing a square chip about the size of a fingernail on the skin, adding a droplet containing genetic code, and zapping it with an energy source.
While it hasn’t been used in humans yet, the process was used in animals to heal brains after stroke and to generate blood vessels in legs where the femoral artery, the limbs’ major blood supply, had been cut, said Chandan Sen, the director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine and Cell-Based Therapies at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.
In leg experiments involving mice, researchers placed the chip on the animals’ wounded legs, delivered the appropriate genetic material, and saw blood vessels grown to regenerate limbs within seven to 14 days, Sen said. Legs that otherwise would have turned black and required amputation were pink, and the mice were able to run again.
In brain experiments on mice, the chip was again placed on the leg, different genetic material was dropped on, and neurological cells grew in the area. Three weeks later, scientists detected firing neurons, and the new cells were taken from the leg and inserted into the brain.
[Article continues below]
The leg-healing process was duplicated in pigs after the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, expressed interest. Sen said the technology could be used to heal troops in the field. One caveat: It must be deployed within 72 hours of a limb being damaged.
Twenty-six Ohio State researchers from the fields of engineering, science and medicine worked together to make the technology a reality.
The discovery could have countless applications across various medical disciplines, Sen said. He’s hopeful other researchers will help stretch the impact of the device.
“There are many smart minds throughout the country and the world that will take this and run,” Sen said.
Sen expects that human trials will come soon, after a letter on the research is published Monday in the Nature Nanotechnology journal, a peer-reviewed scientific publication. The research was led by Sen and L. James Lee, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in Ohio State’s College of Engineering.
[Article continues below]
Sen said it takes less than a second to deliver the genetic code that spurs the skin cells to switch to something else, then several days for new cells to grow.
The equipment needed can fit in a pocket. And the process can be done anywhere; no lab or hospital is needed.
The black chip, made of silicon, acts as a carrier for the genetic code.
“It’s like a syringe — that’s the chip — but then what you load in the syringe is your cargo,” Sen explained. “Based on what you intend the cells to be, the cargo will change. So if you want a vasculogenic (blood vessel) cell, the code would be different than if you wanted a neuro cell, and so on and so forth.”
The genetic code is synthetically made to mirror code from the patient.
The electric field pulls the genetic material into the skin cells.
Because the research project had a high risk of failure, and because Ohio State wanted to keep it close to the vest, public money was not sought, Sen said. Instead it was funded by university and philanthropic money — from Leslie and Abigail Wexner, Ohio State’s Center for Regenerative Medicine and Cell-Based Therapies, and the university’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center.
Approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration is required before Sen, Lee and the research team can try the technique in humans. He expects to get that approval and prove human feasibility within a year. Sen’s hopeful that “the floodgates will open” and then the technology will be used widely within five years.
The chips are already being manufactured locally due to an assist from the Rev1 Ventures business incubator on the Northwest Side, and the technology has gained interest from Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group.
Lee called the concept very simple and said he was surprised by how well it worked.
He had developed similar technology prior to 2011, but it only worked on individual cells and only in processes separate from the body. Since then, he said, many researchers and companies have approached him to come up with a system that worked on tissue in the body.
“More and more people said, ‘This technology can be very, very powerful if you can do tissue,'” he said. “It turns out that it works. It was very surprising.”
This version, he said, is a very significant advancement and is “much, much more useful for the medical applications.”