UCSF Researchers Program Cells to Be Remote-controlled by Light

By Kristen Bole, UCSF News Office | September 13, 2009

UCSF researchers have genetically encoded mouse cells to respond to light, creating cells that can be trained to follow a light beam or stop on command like microscopic robots.

This is the first time researchers have been able to import a light controlled "on-off switch" from plants into a mammalian cell to instantly control a variety of cell functions, the researchers said. As such, it offers both a powerful new tool in cancer and cardiovascular research, as well as the potential to ultimately control complex processes such as nerve growth.

The findings appear in the September 13 advanced online publication of the journal "Nature" and are available at www.nature.com. They are reported alongside a paper on similar research led by Klaus Hahn, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Together, the papers are the first to demonstrate that plant light-switches can be imported into mammalian cells to control complex regulatory processes. The UCSF research is unique in developing a generic plug-and-play switch, based on protein recruitment, which can be wired to control diverse processes in many types of cells and organisms, the researchers said.

The findings could have various therapeutic applications down the road, such as the ability to guide nerve cells to reconnect across a broken spinal pathway in a spinal cord injury, according to Wendell Lim, PhD, one of three senior authors on the paper and the director of the Cell Propulsion Laboratory, a National Institutes of Health Nanomedicine Development Center at UCSF and UC Berkeley.

More immediately, the findings offer a new approach for scientific research into the complex regulatory processes involved in diseases like cancer and inflammation, he said.

Read more at Kristen Bole, UCSF News Office