Researchers at Indiana University have reported the creation of a standardized silicon nanochip that can be used to change bodily tissues from within.
The hope is that the technology could be used to repair internal damage in a non-invasive way, such as brain damage caused by a stroke or nerve damage caused by diabetes.
But while the rise of implantable technology is causing great excitement in some quarters, for others it raises disquieting questions about personal autonomy and privacy.
Silicon nanochips: repairing the body from the inside out
The technology is known as tissue nanotransfection. It comprises a non-invasive nanochip device that can reprogram tissue function by applying an electric spark to deliver specific genes in a split-second.
In laboratory studies, the nanochip successfully transformed skin tissue into blood vessels, in a scenario that was intended to simulate repairing badly injured leg.
“This report on how to exactly produce these tissue nanotransfection chips will enable other researchers to participate in this new development in regenerative medicine,” said Chandan Sen, director of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering, associate vice president for research and Distinguished Professor at the IU School of Medicine.
“This small silicon chip enables nanotechnology that can change the function of living body parts,” he said. “For example, if someone’s blood vessels were damaged because of a traffic accident and they need blood supply, we can’t rely on the pre-existing blood vessel anymore because that is crushed, but we can convert the skin tissue into blood vessels and rescue the limb at risk.”
In the Nature Protocols report, the researchers published engineering details about how the chip is manufactured.
According to Sen, this manufacturing information will lead to further development of the chip in hopes that it will someday be used clinically in many settings around the world. The team is currently using the technology to reprogram tissue for different kinds of therapies, such as repairing brain damage caused by stroke or preventing and reversing nerve damage caused by diabetes.
“This is about the engineering and manufacturing of the chip,” he said. “The chip’s nanofabrication process typically takes five to six days and, with the help of this report, can be achieved by anyone skilled in the art.”
Sen said he hopes to seek FDA approval for the chip within a year. With FDA approval, the device could be used for clinical research in people, including patients in hospitals, health centers and emergency rooms, as well as in other emergency situations by first responders or the military.
The rise of implantable technology: cause for concern?
Advances in implantable tech are being reported thick and fast these days, and although many will see them as cause for rejoicing, others will be deeply disquieted by their potential implications for autonomy and privacy,
A few weeks ago, for instance, we reported on a brain stimulation device that uses the power of AI to improve cognitive function. The researchers hope that it could be used soon to treat a whole variety of mental illnesses and conditions painlessly and undetectability for users. The research team is now preparing for clinical trials.
“This system can read brain activity, ‘decode’ from that when a patient is having difficulty, and apply a small burst of electrical stimulation to the brain to boost them past that difficulty,” one of the lead researchers said.
“The analogy I often use is an electric bike. When someone’s pedaling but having difficulty, the bike senses it and augments it. We’ve made the equivalent of that for human mental function.”
But the fact that one of the principal funders for this research is DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) should give us some pause to reflect on its other potential purposes and implications.
Other implantable devices are being researched to administer drugs to the brain remotely and to monitor vital signals in real time through the use of AI.
If the use of such technology becomes widespread, what will it mean for us as autonomous humans?
Will we still be in control of ourselves, or will we surrender control in a way that might make it impossible to take back?
Questions that were once restricted to science-fictions writers are now being realised as imminent concerns for all of us.
Can we maintain our control – and our humanity?
Only time will tell.
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