Researchers at Washington University have genetically-engineered cells to react to light.
By taking light-sensing receptors from the eye — called opsins — and inserting them into immune cells, the researchers were able to trick the cells into moving toward a laser beam, in the same way they would move toward a bacterial infection.
Washington University molecular biologist N. Gautam led the research.
“Our thought was that if we used light to activate a receptor like this, we could have complete control, just like a light switch,” Gautam says. “We can switch off something and switch on something at will.”
Gautam says they’ve been able to use the same technique to get nerve cells to respond to light. Now they’re working on heart cells.
“One of the things we would like to do is to take two different opsins that sense two different wavelengths of light, and then use them in a heart cell to make the heart cell go faster or slower using blue light and red light,” Gautam says.
Gautam says eventually this kind of genetic engineering could be used therapeutically in people, to get immune cells to attack tumors, or nerve cells to regenerate — all in response to light.
That may sound like science fiction, but Gautam says it’s not that far off: he thinks some of these gene therapies could be in use within a decade.
His current research is published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience