Controlling cells with light - new therapeutic approaches for serious diseases

How nerve cells can be switched on and off with light

Understanding diseases in every detail, recognizing them earlier and optimizing therapies - this is the ambitious goal of medical science in photonics. Light is the central element here. Optical systems in the diagnosis and therapy of diseases have already taken an important place. A German research team is now going deeper into the matter. Implantable probes are intended to optically activate or deactivate cell functions. In this way, the researchers want to influence numerous diseases.

This “light control” for cells opens up new possibilities in the diagnosis and therapy of many diseases. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) also contributed 1.4 million euros to the project. Scientists from the Technical University of Chemnitz and the University Medical Center Göttingen are significantly involved in the development of the so-called optogenetic cochlear implant, which according to the researchers opens up unprecedented potential in medical technology and neuroscience.

The journey into the ego

Tracking and influencing life processes in cells and tissues down to the molecular level - a dream of science. The implantable probes are one step closer to fulfilling this dream. The probes enable light-controlled control of the activity of cells. Like a switch that is activated by light, nerve cells can easily be switched on or off or other cell functions can be activated optically.

The alternative to cardiac and brain pacemakers

The process is similar in principle to the electrical stimulation used in cardiac or brain pacemakers. The light control of the cochlear implant is much more precise. The implant allows a much more precise control of cell activity.

Active and passive probes

The scientists want to develop both active and passive probes that enable the implementation of optogenetics in the human body. The "active probes" should be equipped with microscopic micro-LEDs that are attached to flexible supports. With the "passive probes", the light from laser diodes is guided into the tissue via optical polymer waveguides. These waveguide probes have the advantage that the probe can be further away from the stimulation site. This creates more freedom in the choice of components that must remain in the body as an implant for many years.

Listening to light

As one of the first projects, a prototype for “listening to light” has already been developed. It is an optical cochlear implant for people with hearing loss. This implant is inserted into the cochlea of ​​the inner ear, where it stimulates the nerve cells with the help of the LEDs. The team around Prof. Dr. Ulrich Theodor Schwarz and Prof. Karla Hiller are largely responsible for the development of the probes and miniaturized light source arrays and expect their marketability soon. (vb)

Author and source information

Video: Elaine Fuchs Rockefeller, HHMI 3: Cancer: Hijacking the Wound Repair Mechanisms Used by Stem Cells (August 2020).