Researchers have developed a tiny chip that, when applied to an affected area, can regenerate and repair failing body functions by turning skin cells into other types of healing cells.

The technology could mean a breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, as doctors could grow brain cells on a person’s own skin, harvest the cells and inject them into the brain using the chip.

It sounds like science fiction, but Dr. Chandan Sen, director of Ohio State’s Center for Regenerative Medicine & Cell Based Therapies says that the technology implies a huge realm of possibilities. “By using our novel nanochip technology, injured or compromised organs can be replaced,” Sen said in a press release. “We have shown that skin is a fertile land where we can grow the elements of any organ that is declining.”

The process, called Tissue Nanotransfection (TNT), uses a chip loaded with specific genetic code or certain proteins; a cargo that’s been designed for cell conversion. The chip is placed on the affected area and a small electrical current is applied, creating channels in the patient’s tissue. This allows DNA or RNA to be injected into those channels, where they take root and reprogram the affected cells to begin the healing process.

It’s a new take on gene therapy — the act of inserting carefully selected DNA into the body to treat a disease — in this instance, TNT’s charge-based strategy delivers DNA straight into cells.

“With this technology, we can convert skin cells into elements of any organ with just one touch. This process only takes less than a second and is non-invasive, and then you’re off,” says Sen.

The technology has not yet been tested on humans, but researchers at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center applied the technology to the injured leg of a mouse where scans showed no blood flow. TNT reprogrammed their skin cells to become vascular cells, active blood vessels then formed, and within three weeks the leg had been saved.

It even helped mice recover from stroke. Researchers grew brain cells on the skin surface of a mouse, harvested them and then injected them into the brain. After that, it only took a few weeks for brain function to be restored.

“The concept is very simple,” says L. James Lee, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering with Ohio State’s College of Engineering. “As a matter of fact, we were even surprised how it worked so well. In my lab, we have ongoing research trying to understand the mechanism and do even better. So, this is the beginning, more to come.”

Thus far, researchers say that the technique has worked 98 percent of the time. They expect TNT to be approved for human trials within a year because the technique only uses the patients own cells and no medication.

Photos via Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center