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"Light Switch" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Using tiny photonic implants, researchers have wirelessly controlled a gene in lab-grown brain tissue -- an initial step that could one day lead to new cancer treatments and ways to prevent and treat certain mental disorders.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Big turn-off.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptor 1 -- not the catchiest name for a gene, but it's an important one. Because it holds sway over (Sound effect: cartoon gene party) about forty-five hundred other genes and has a huge role in how animals grow from embryos to adults. Find a way to wirelessly control that gene and down the road you might drastically reduce the need for drugs and other therapies for certain illnesses.

Researchers led by the University at Buffalo have taken a first step. They added light-sensitive molecules to brain tissue in the lab, then inserted tiny photonic implants -- wireless, with nano-lasers and antennas into the tissue. By flashing different colored lasers, they were able to turn the gene and its associated cellular functions -- on (Sound effect: switch) and off (Sound effect: switch). Showing that this gene and ultimately cell development can be controlled through light.

The technique provides more precise control than traditional methods over when and where the genes will be turned on and off.

The team says such "optogenomic" interfaces might one day be key to new cancer treatments, and ways to prevent and treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

Optogenomics: A potentially huge advance comes to "light."

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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