Gaseous messenger molecule inside the body, on demand

July 01, 2020 //By Julien Happich
messenger molecule
Nitric oxide is an important signalling molecule in the body, with a role in building nervous system connections that contribute to learning and memory. It also functions as a messenger in the cardiovascular and immune systems. But it has been difficult for researchers to study exactly what its role is in these systems and how it functions.

Now, a team of scientists and engineers at MIT and elsewhere has found a way of generating the gas at precisely targeted locations inside the body, potentially opening new lines of research on this essential molecule’s effects. The findings are reported today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, in a paper by MIT professors Polina Anikeeva, Karthish Manthiram, and Yoel Fink; graduate student Jimin Park; postdoc Kyoungsuk Jin; and 10 others at MIT and in Taiwan, Japan, and Israel.

“It’s a very important compound,” Anikeeva says. But figuring out the relationships between the delivery of nitric oxide to particular cells and synapses, and the resulting higher-level effects on the learning process has been difficult. So far, most studies have resorted to looking at systemic effects, by knocking out genes responsible for the production of enzymes the body uses to produce nitric oxide where it’s needed as a messenger. But that approach, she says, is “very brute force. This is a hammer to the system because you’re knocking it out not just from one specific region, let’s say in the brain, but you essentially knock it out from the entire organism, and this can have other side effects.”

Others have tried introducing compounds into the body that release nitric oxide as they decompose, which can produce somewhat more localized effects, but these still spread out, and it is a very slow and uncontrolled process. The team’s solution uses an electric voltage to drive the reaction that produces nitric oxide. This is similar to what is happening on a much larger scale with some industrial electrochemical production processes, which are relatively modular and controllable, enabling local and on-demand chemical synthesis.

“We've taken that concept and said, you know what? You can be so local and so modular with an electrochemical process that you can even do this at the level of the cell,” Manthiram says.

“And I think what’s even more exciting about this is that if you use electric potential, you have the ability to start production and stop production in a heartbeat.”

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