Don’t be surprised if the cure for mesothelioma comes not from a cancer hospital research lab but from Apple or Microsoft.
Scientists are coming to believe that diseases can be treated by using computer programming language to change how living cells behave.
The idea is to hack into the DNA “circuitry” of a cell — a mesothelioma cell, for example — and rewrite the code that governs the operation and functioning of that cell.
Biological engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced they successfully used computer software commands to reengineer the DNA circuits of an E.coli bacteria cell.
E.coli is a far cry from mesothelioma. Still, this could be potentially helpful to you as a mesothelioma patient. The reason is that what hacking did to the E.coli cell it could just as easily do to a mesothelioma cell.
At least theoretically. What the hacking did was cause the test E.coli cell to stop performing certain functions and start performing certain others.
Potential for Causing Mesothelioma Cell Death
Writing in the journal Science, the MIT researchers suggest it may be possible to reprogram hacked cells so that they begin producing specific proteins capable of causing self-destruction.
For example, cancer cells would die on their own by the process of apoptosis (programmed cell death) if it weren’t for their ability to naturally override their built-in apoptosis triggering mechanism.
However, by hacking those cells’ DNA circuits, their override-blocking capacity could be shut down so that apoptosis could proceed.
This notion of using computer code to alter the way that cells act is part of an area of science known as synthetic biology. Synthetic biology involves reengineering DNA circuits, which are much like electronic circuits.
Using text-based computer software to accomplish the reengineering represents a breakthrough which the MIT researchers contend could revolutionize synthetic biology.
The researchers explained that this technique is simple. According to them, the text they compile is translated by the computer into a DNA circuit sequence.
The DNA circuit is then downloaded to the cell. Once inside the cell, the circuit operates just as if it were a natural part of things.
In tests on the E.coli cell, the DNA circuit the researchers downloaded caused the cell to behave in certain desired ways in response to cues from the surrounding environment.
Those cues related to changes in the amount of oxygen, glucose, acidity and light coming into contact with the cell’s outer membrane.
In this experiment, the MIT team was able to create a DNA circuit containing instructions for responses to seven different environmental cues.
DNA Circuits Can Tell Cells to Do Things
The researchers said DNA circuits are not just easy to write but also easy to edit. So, if they had wanted, they could have later downloaded updates to make the cells do more things.
Also, they said it’s possible to download more than one DNA circuit to a single cell. However, adding too many circuits might overload the cell and cause it to freeze, just like what happens when a computer tries to execute too many tasks with too little available memory.
According to the researchers, the synthetic DNA circuits are written with a text-based programming language called Verilog. Verilog translates the programming into synthetic DNA loops.
The loops are known as plasmids. They are downloaded by physical insertion into the cell — sort of like plugging a thumb drive into a USB port.
The programming kicks in as soon as the environmental cues are present. For example, if environmental acidity were to fall to a pre-determined level it would cause the programming to start running.
Once the program starts running it could instruct the cell to do things like produce a certain protein it doesn’t naturally make or to stop making a protein it shouldn’t be producing at all.
The researchers caution that the ability to hack DNA circuits may not be available to everyday medicine for a number of years yet. Still, it will be very interesting to see how this plays out.