Sufferers of type 1 diabetes regularly need to inject themselves with insulin in order to regulate levels of sugar in their blood, a process that is invasive and requires particular care. But a new study conducted at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggests that more comfortable treatment methods may not be all that far away, with scientists remotely manipulating insulin production in mice using electromagnetic waves.

The researchers are calling their newly developed system radiogenetics. Integral to its success are iron storage particles called ferritins, which are tethered to an ion channel and are capable of interacting with radio waves or magnetic fields. As the waves are transmitted, which could be done by a phone or a wearable device, for example, the ferritin particles force open the ion channel (called TRPV1), which is located in the membrane of the cell.

With TRPV1 open for traffic, calcium ions flow through the channel and set off a synthetic DNA gene developed by the scientists to turn on the production of a downstream gene, which in this case was insulin. The researchers used the system to successfully lower blood sugar levels in mice, but they say that it could potentially be tweaked to treat a whole host of conditions.

"The use of a radiofrequency-driven magnetic field is a big advance in remote gene expression because it is non-invasive and easily adaptable," says Jonathan Dordick, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "You don’t have to insert anything, no wires, no light systems and the genes are introduced through gene therapy. You could have a wearable device that provides a magnetic field to certain parts of the body and it might be used therapeutically for many diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases. It's limitless at this point."

In testing, the researchers used both radio waves and magnetic fields to spark the process and found them to be equally effective in initiating insulin production. They are now looking into whether the technique could be used to control neural activity.

The research was published in the journal Nature Medicine.