Tough time recovering from jet lag? US government-university partnership developing implantable ‘living pharmacy’ to control our circadian clocks

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Credit: Darryl Leja/National Human Genome Research Institute
Credit: Darryl Leja/National Human Genome Research Institute

A Northwestern University-led team of researchers has signed a cooperative agreement with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a wireless, fully implantable device that will control the body’s circadian clock, halving the time it takes to recover from disrupted sleep/wake cycles.

In this artistic illustration, a user with an NTRAIN implant and its accompanying external hub works in the field. Credit: Northwestern

The first phase of the highly interdisciplinary program will focus on developing the implant. The second phase, contingent on the first, will validate the device. If that milestone is met, then researchers will test the device in human trials, as part of the third phase. The full funding corresponds to $33 million over four-and-a-half years.

Nicknamed the “living pharmacy,” the device could be a powerful tool for military personnel, who frequently travel across multiple time zones, and shift workers including first responders, who vacillate between overnight and daytime shifts.

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Called NTRAIN (Normalizing Timing of Rhythms Across Internal Networks of Circadian Clocks), the project is a part the Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness (ADAPTER) program, DARPA’s new program to help address the challenges of travel, including jetlag, fatigue, and gastrointestinal issues. Circadian clock research will be led by sleep experts at Northwestern’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology (CSCB). Synthetic biologists at Rice University will lead cellular engineering efforts. And Northwestern engineers will join researchers from Rice and Carnegie Mellon universities and Blackrock Microsystems to develop bioelectronic components.

Jonathan Rivnay

Combining synthetic biology with bioelectronics, the team will engineer cells to produce the same peptides that the body makes to regulate sleep cycles, precisely adjusting timing and dose with bioelectronic controls. When the engineered cells are exposed to light, they will generate precisely dosed peptide therapies.

“This control system allows us to deliver a peptide of interest on demand, directly into the bloodstream,” said Northwestern Engineering’s Jonathan Rivnay, principal investigator of the project. “No need to carry drugs, no need to inject therapeutics and — depending on how long we can make the device last — no need to refill the device. It’s like an implantable pharmacy on a chip that never runs out.”

Guillermo Ameer

Rivnay is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. Other Northwestern Engineering members of the interdisciplinary team include Guillermo Ameer,Daniel Hale Williams Professor of Biomedical Engineering and professor of surgery, and Josiah Hester, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, computer science, and (by courtesy) preventive medicine. The team also includes professors Fred W. Turek, Martha Hotz Vitaterna, Peng Jiang, and Phyllis C. Zee — representing Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Feinberg School of Medicine.

Josiah Hester

Beyond controlling circadian rhythms, the researchers believe this technology could be modified to release other types of therapies with precise timing and dosing for potentially treating pain and disease. The DARPA program also will help researchers better understand sleep/wake cycles, in general.

“The experiments carried out in these studies will enable new insights into how internal circadian organization is maintained,” said Turek, who co-leads the sleep team with Vitaterna. “These insights will lead to new therapeutic approaches for sleep disorders as well as many other physiological and mental disorders, including those associated with aging where there is often a spontaneous breakdown in temporal organization.”

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