The methodology, currently being tested for feasibility with a group of type 2 diabetic patients, explores a new non-invasive treatment of chronic disease that modulates the body’s nervous system by focusing high-frequency sound waves on specific nerve sites.
Ultrasound is known to stimulate specific neural pathways within organs associated with various diseases, and the researchers found that their new treatment method using ultrasound prevented or reversed type 2 diabetes in three different preclinical models.
Led by biomedical engineers at GE research in New York, the team also includes researchers from New York’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, Yale School of Medicine, and Albany Medical College.
The reported findings represent a significant milestone in the field of bioelectronic medicine, which is exploring new ways to treat debilitating chronic diseases such as diabetes without the use of drugs. A research paper detailing the progress was published in Nature Biomedical Engineering and GE Research shared the team’s findings in an ad last month.
The UCLA authors on the document are Dino Di Carlo, professor of bioengineering and holder of the UCLA Armond and Elena Hairapetian Chair in Engineering and Medicine, and Hiromi Miwa, PhD student in bioengineering. The UCLA couple developed a new 3D scaffold for growing and culturing neurons for the study’s lab experiments.
“Our studies indicate that focused ultrasound activates neurons through ion channels that are sensitive to mechanical forces,” said Dino Di Carlo.
“Our studies indicate that focused ultrasound activates neurons through ion channels that are sensitive to mechanical forces,” Di Carlo said. “This is a whole new way to interface with our body and cure diseases.”
Their new 3D scaffold culture has created an ideal medium for neurons – cells that are part of the nervous system – that receive and send signals throughout the body. Neurons have unique physical and chemical characteristics that make it difficult to adapt them to existing 3D culture platform designs.
Rather than being ball-shaped like most cells, neurons look more like a plant root. They have tendrils called dendrites that branch out and receive signals. A long tail, called an axon, sends the corresponding signals from the neuron.
The UCLA team’s new 3D scaffold consists of a hydrogel that has microscopic pores throughout the structure within which neurons reside and grow, providing ample space for numerous dendrites and axons that connect neurons together. The researchers adjusted the rigidity of the scaffold to optimal conditions for neurons and added small chains of amino acids called peptides that nerve cells can adhere to.
In vitro experiments have shown that neurons can be activated and send signals when stimulated by ultrasonic sound waves due to the presence of sensors on the cell surface that react to ultrasound-induced pressure changes.
The research was supported in part by the Agency’s Office for Biological Technologies for Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA).
At UCLA, Di Carlo also holds a faculty position in mechanical and aerospace engineering and is a member of the California NanoSystems Institute and the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.