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Implantable “Living Pharmacy” That Lets You Fall Asleep On Demand Wins DARPA Funding


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockMay 14 2021, 15:05 UTC
sleepy coffee lady

The team envisions the NTRAIN implant in a person’s arm with an external hub that would connect and activate it. Image Credit: Lena Ivanova/

Researchers led by a team at Northwestern University have designed a new type of implantable device, promising to allow the user to control their sleep/wake cycle with a mixture of synthetic biology and bioelectronics.

The implant called NTRAIN (Normalizing Timing of Rhythms Across Internal Networks of Circadian Clocks) would have cells that produce the same peptides – short strings of amino acids – that naturally regulate our circadian rhythm. The approach could help people whose natural cycle is affected by irregular work hours or other movements across time zones. It might also help people with chronic insomnia.


“This control system allows us to deliver a peptide of interest on demand, directly into the bloodstream,” Northwestern’s Jonathan Rivnay, principal investigator of the project, said in a statement. “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.”

The device has received $33 million over a four-and-a-half-year period by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to be fully developed. The idea is that this device could be used by military personnel, first responders, and shift workers.

The first phase of the research will develop the actual implant. In the second phase, the device will be tested to show if it can really do what the team expects. All of that being successful, it will move to human trials in the third phase.

The device uses light to stimulate cells to produce these natural peptides. While the DARPA-funded project focuses on the control of the circadian rhythm, the researchers believe that it could be expanded to deliver different molecules that could have a beneficial effect.

The NTRAIN implant
How the NTRAIN implant is expected to work. Image Credit: Northwestern University

“In the current envisioned systems, the therapeutic molecules will be produced onboard the device by human cells that have been programmed to deliver compounds when you shine light on them. In principle, we are using the machinery of these mammalian cells, so the compound is something that is made in our bodies, and the cells can produce it – we could use that as the therapy,” Professor Rivnay told IFLScience.

The team envisions the NTRAIN implant in a person’s arm with an external hub that would connect and activate it. Once the implant gets the trigger, it would produce the precise dose of peptides to release in the body to make a person sleepy.



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