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Researchers Build 'Smart' Cell-Based Therapies That Selectively Kill Cancer Cells

Update Date: Apr 18, 2014 11:09 AM EDT

Researchers have developed a technology for engineering human cell-based devices that monitors and modifies human physiology. The living devices may selectively kill cancer cells without disrupting healthy cells. 

The technology is a protein biosensor installed on the surface of a cell which can be programmed to sense specific external factors. Upon detecting theses factors, it would send a signal into the engineered cell's nucleus that activates a gene expression program. 

"The project addressed a key gap in the synthetic biology toolbox," said Joshua Leonard, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, in the press release. "There was no way to engineer cells in a manner that allowed them to sense key pieces of information about their environment, which could indicate whether the engineered cell is in healthy tissue or sitting next to a tumor."

Engineers said the engineered cell was able to detect big, soluble protein molecules that indicates that it's next to a tumor. According to researchers, the toxic program is activated only near tumor cells minimizing side effects and ultimately improving the therapeutic benefits. 

"By linking the output of these biosensors to genetic programs, one can build in a certain logical command, such as 'turn the output gene on when you sense this factor but not that factor,'" Leonard explains. "In that way, you could program a cell-based therapy to specify which cells it should kill."

"This seems to be what always happens in synthetic biology," he added in the press release. "When you start building something, you first learn a lot about the system that you are trying to modify. In the end, you come up with not only useful applications but tools that facilitate basic science."

The research has been published online in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.

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