One day, creator Chandan Sen hopes, it could be used to be used to treat wounds on humans. But that day is a long way off — as are many other regeneration technologies in the works. Like Sen, some scientists have begun trying to directly reprogram one cell type into another for healing, while others are attempting to build organs or tissues from stem cells and organ-shaped scaffolding.
But other scientists have greeted Sen's mouse experiment, published in Nature Nanotechnology on Monday, with extreme skepticism. "My impression is that there's a lot of hyperbole here," says Sean Morrison, a stem cell researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "The idea you can [reprogram] a limited number of cells in the skin and improve blood flow to an entire limb – I think it's a pretty fantastic claim. I find it hard to believe."
When the device is placed on live skin and activated, it sends a small electrical pulse onto the skin cells' membrane, which opens a tiny window on the cell surface. "It's about 2 percent of the cell membrane," says Sen, who is a researcher in regenerative medicine at Ohio State University. Then, using a microscopic chute, the chip shoots new genetic code through that window and into the cell where it can begin reprogramming the cell for a new fate.
Sen says the whole process takes less than 0.1 seconds and can reprogram the cells resting underneath the device, which is about the size of a big toenail. The best part is that it's able to successfully deliver its genetic payload almost 100 percent of the time, he says. "No other gene delivery technique can deliver over 98 percent efficiency. That is our triumph."