A team of National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) researchers yesterday said that they have used ultrasonic waves to treat Parkinson’s disease in mice, turning ultrasound — mainly used for medical scanning — into a treatment tool.
NTHU Institute of Molecular Medicine associate professor Lin Yu-chun (林玉俊) said that he has been looking for a safe and noninvasive way to control cell activity.
As optical waves cannot penetrate more than 2mm of human tissue and magnetic waves cannot be used for precision targeting, Lin said that he turned to ultrasonic waves, but had to first solve the problem of making human cells responsive to soundwaves.
Photo courtesy of National Tsing Hua University via CNA
While prestin — a protein critical to sensitive hearing — is found in all mammals, it is insensitive to ultrasound in humans and mice, so Lin began studying the proteins of dolphins, whales and bats, which are known for their acoustic sensitivity, he said.
Humans and some other animals cannot hear sounds with frequencies higher than 20 kilohertz (kHz), he added.
After identifying the specific amino acid compositions related to sound perception in dolphins, whales and bats, Lin said that he reformed the prestin in lab mice through genetic editing and implanted the reformed protein into their cells, increasing their sensitivity to ultrasound by more than 10 times.
Yeh Chih-kuang (葉秩光), distinguished professor and director of the university’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Environmental Sciences, designed special microbubbles — lipid droplets filled with inert gas — to envelop the reformed prestin and carry it into the blood of mice, Lin said.
The microbubbles break apart when hit by ultrasonic waves, allowing the reformed prestin to reach target cells directly, which is another form of precision medicine, he said.
The technique has proved effective in treating mice with Parkinson’s disease, with their mobility greatly improving after treatment, as shown in a video released by the team.
While ultrasonic waves are mainly used for medical examinations, the team has turned them into a treatment tool, Lin said, expressing the hope that the technique could be used to treat diabetes or cancers by activating pertinent cells.
The findings of the team, composed of members of several university departments, as well as Academia Sinica, were published last month in the journal Nano Letters.
Medical ultrasound frequencies are usually higher than 100kHz, but the team has only experimented with ultrasonic waves of up to 500kHz, Lin said.
The team will continue experimenting with different ultrasonic frequencies, improve the auditory sensitivity of cells and apply the technique to more diseases, he added.
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