They Found the Ultimate Switch

Cells do things (or stop doing things) because of internal homeostatic (or other) regulatory mechanisms, or because of communication with the “outside” via receptor sites located on the cell membrane. To get cells to do what we want (produce more or less of a hormone, for instance, or simply to die as in the case of cancer cells) it would be nice to have a machine that you point at a patient, program a few dials and buttons, and then affect the receptor sites in that person’s cells.

Well, the production model isn’t quite ready yet, but such a device now exists on both the drawing board and in preliminary experimental work.

Don Ingber, MD, PhD, and Robert Mannix, PhD, of Children’s program in Vascular Biology, in collaboration with Mara Prentiss, PhD, a physicist at Harvard University, devised a way to get tiny beads – 30 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in diameter – to bind to receptor molecules on the cell surface. When exposed to a magnetic field, the beads themselves become magnets, and pull together through magnetic attraction. This pull drags the cell’s receptors into large clusters, mimicking what happens when drugs or other molecules bind to them. This clustering, in turn, activates the receptors, triggering a cascade of biochemical signals that influence different cell functions.

“This technology allows us to control the behavior of living cells through magnetic forces rather than chemicals or hormones,” says Ingber. “It may provide a new way to interface with machines or computers in the future, opening up entirely new ways of controlling drug delivery, or making detectors that have living cells as component parts. We’ve harnessed a biological control system, but we can control it at will, using magnetic forces.”


Always be careful when you hear words like “We can control it at will…”

In a demonstration involving mast cells (a kind of cell in the immune system), Ingber and Mannix showed that the beads, when bound to cell receptors and exposed to a magnetic field, were able to stimulate an influx of calcium into the cells.

Do you know what that means? If you can do this selectively, you can control muscle movement, you can control thought, and so on. But the easiest things to control (because of the spatial distribution of neurons) will be the most visceral things. You could create the ultimate torture device, you could create a machine that would eliminate anxiety, or cause fear, or, if you were a good scientist rather than an evil scientist, you could create Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron.

Here is the Orgasmatron in action, but in French (there are no English copies available):

And, as long as we are on the subject of the movie Sleeper, I thought you might enjoy this as well: