In the pages of this blog we’ve often highlighted the power of fluorescent tags to track molecules and see what they’re up to. It’s a method largely pioneered by the late Roger Tsien and it has revolutionized cell biology over the last 20 years.
In parallel with molecular tagging has come genetic engineering that permits novel genes, usually carried by viruses, to be introduced to cells and animals. As we saw in Gosh! Wonderful GOSH and Blowing Up Cancer, various ‘virotherapy’ approaches have been used with some success to treat leukemias and skin cancers and a trial is underway in China treating metastatic non-small cell lung cancer.
A major aim of genetic engineering is to be able to control the expression of novel genes (i.e. protein production from the encoding DNA sequence) that have been introduced into an animal — in the jargon, to ‘switch’ on or off at will. That can be done but only by administering a drug or some other regulator, either in drinking water, by injection or squirting directly into the lungs. An ideal would be something that’s more controlled and less invasive. How about shining a light on the relevant spot?!
Wacky or what?
That may sound as though we’re veering towards science fiction but reflect for a moment that every animal with vision, however rudimentary, sees by transforming light entering the eyes into electrical signals that the brain turns into a picture of the world around them. This relies on photoreceptor proteins that span the membranes of retinal cells.
How vision works. Light passes through the lens and falls on the retina at the back of the eye. The photoreceptor cells it activates are rod cells (that respond to low light levels — there’s about 100 million of them) and cone cells (stimulated by bright light). Sitting across the membranes of these cells are photoreceptor proteins — rhodopsin in rods and photopsin in cones. Photoreceptor proteins change shape when light falls on them — the driver for this being a small chemical attached to the proteins called retinal, one of the many forms of vitamin A. This shape change allows the proteins to ‘talk’ to the inside of the cell, i.e. to interact with other proteins to switch on enzymes and change the level of ions (sodium and calcium). The upshot is that the signal is passed through neural cells in the optic nerve to the brain where the incoming light signals are processed into the images that we perceive.
The seemingly far-fetched notion of controlling genes by light was floated by Francis Crick in 1999. The field was launched in 2002 by Boris Zemelman and Gero Miesenböck who engineered neurons to express one form of rhodopsin. This gave birth to the subject of optogenetics — using light to control cells in living tissues that have been genetically modified to express light-sensitive ion channels such as rhodopsin. By 2010 optogenetics had advanced to being the ‘Method of the Year’ according to the research journal Nature Methods.
Dropping like flies
One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the power of optogenetics has come from Robert Kittel and colleagues in Würzburg and Göttingen who made a mutant form of a protein called channelrhodopsin-1 (found in green algae) and expressed it in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). The mutant protein (ChR2-XXL) carries very large photocurrents of ions (critically sodium and calcium) with the result that photostimulation can drastically change the behaviour of freely moving flies.
Left hand tube: Activation of ChR2-XXL in motor neurons with white light LEDs caused reversible immobilization of adult flies. In contrast (right hand tube) flies expressing normal (wild-type) channelrhodopsin-2 showed no response. From Dawydow et al., 2014.
Other optogenetic experiments on flies can be viewed on You Tube, e.g., the TED talk of Gero Miesenböck and the Manchester Fly Facility video of fly maggots, engineered to have a channel protein (channelrhodopsin) in their neurons, responding to blue light.
Of flies … and mice … and men
This is stunning science and it’s opened a new vista in neurobiology. But what about the things we’re concerned with in these pages — treating diseases like diabetes and cancer?
Scheme showing how genetic engineering can make the release of insulin from cells controllable by light. Normally cells of the pancreas (beta cells) take up glucose when its level in the circulation rises (via a glucose transporter protein). The rise in glucose triggers ATP production in the cell. This in turn causes potassium channels in the membrane to close (called depolarization) and this opens calcium channels. The increase in calcium in the cell drives insulin secretion. From Kushibiki et al., 2015.
The left-hand scheme above shows how glucose triggers the pancreas to produce the hormone insulin. Diabetes occurs when either the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or when cells of the body don’t respond properly to insulin by taking up glucose.
As a first step to see whether optogenetic regulation of calcium levels in pancreatic cells could trigger insulin release, Toshihiro Kushibiki and colleagues at the National Defense Medical College in Saitama, Japan engineered the channelrhodopsin-1 protein into mouse cells and hit them with laser light of the appropriate frequency. An hour after a short burst of light (a few seconds) the insulin levels had doubled.
The photo below shows a clump of these cells: the nuclei are blue and the channel protein (yellow) can be seen sitting across the cell membranes.
Cells expressing a fluorescently tagged channelrhodopsin protein (yellow). Nuclei are blue. From Kushibiki et al., 2015.
To show that this could work in animals they suspended the engineered cells in a gel and inoculated blobs of the goo under the skin of diabetic mice. Laser burst again: blood glucose levels fell and they showed this was due to the irradiated, implanted cells producing insulin.
Fast forward three years
Those brilliant results highlighted the potential of optogenetic technology as a completely novel approach to a disease that afflicts over 300 million people worldwide.
Scheme showing a Smartphone can be used to regulate the release of insulin from engineered cells implanted in a mouse with diabetes. The key events in the cell are that the light-activated receptor turns on an enzyme (BphS) that in turn controls a transcription regulator (FRTA) that binds to a DNA construct to switch on the Gene Of Interest (GOI) — in this case encoding insulin. (shGLP1, short human glucagon-like peptide 1, is a hormone that has the opposite effect to insulin). From Shao et al., 2017.
In a remarkable confluence of technologies Jiawei Shao and colleagues from a number of institutes in Shanghai, including the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, and from ETH Zürich have recently published work that takes the application of optogenetics well and truly into the twenty-first century.
They figured that, as these days nearly everyone lives with their smartphone, the world could use a diabetes app. Essentially they designed a home server SmartController to process wireless signals so that a smartphone could control insulin production by cells in gel capsules implanted in mice. There are differences in the genetic engineering of these cells from those used by Kushibiki’s group but the critical point is unchanged: laser light stimulates insulin release. The capsules carry wirelessly powered LEDs.
The only other thing needed is to know glucose levels. Because mice are only little and they’ve already got their gel capsule, rather than implanting a monitor they took a drop of blood from the tail and used a glucometer. However, looking ahead to human applications, continuous glucose monitors are now available that, placed under the skin, can transmit a radio signal to the controller and, ultimately, it will be possible for the gel capsules to have a built-in battery plus glucose sensor and the whole thing could work automatically.
Any chance of illuminating cancer?
This science is so breathtaking it seems cheeky to ask but, well, I’d say ‘yes but not just yet.’ So long as the ‘drug’ you wish to use can be made biologically (i.e. from DNA by the machinery of the cell), rather than by chemical synthesis, Shao’s Smartphone set-up can readily be adapted to deliver anti-cancer drugs. This might be hugely preferable to the procedures currently in use and would offer an additional advantage by administering drugs in short bursts of lower concentration — a regimen that in some mouse cancer models at least is more effective.
Dawydow, A., Kittel, R.J. et al., 2014. Channelrhodopsin-2–XXL, a powerful optogenetic tool for low-light applications. PNAS 111, 13972-13977.
Kushibiki et al., (2015). Optogenetic control of insulin secretion by pancreatic beta-cells in vitro and in vivo. Gene Therapy 22, 553-559.
Shao, J. et al., 2017. Smartphone-controlled optogenetically engineered cells enable semiautomatic glucose homeostasis in diabetic mice. Science Translational Medicine 9, Issue 387, eaal2298.