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With some clever genetic engineering but without ever touching a cell or an animal, scientist can remotely control cells using ultrasound, light, and, now, also radio waves. The electromagnetic waves can be used to selectively heat up parts of cells and activate a gene to make insulin in mice, according to a recent study published in Science.
But why care about radio waves if we have light and ultrasound? Radio waves have a couple distinct advantages over existing techniques.
In the current study, the radio waves didn’t heat up a whole patch of tissue or even a whole cell—it only affected specific pores in the cell, called TRPV1, that open in response to heat. To get this specificity, the scientists made special iron oxide nanoparticles attached to an antibody that only sticks to TRPV1. When they turned on the radio waves, the iron oxide particles warmed up and opened the TRPV1 channel, minimally affecting the rest of the cell or surrounding cells. Ultrasound, on the other hand, heats up a whole patch of tissue to 42° Celsius, which could have damaging or confounding effects on the cells.