Programmable DNA Strands Could Be the Future of Medicine

It might not be long before we routinely have programmable smartpills swimming through our veins to respond to our cells’ individual needs.

DNA - Cancer Cells

The mobile wireless health revolution is well underway as rapid advancements in programmable smart pill technology continue to reduce the gap between healthcare and digital tech. According to a recently published paper, researchers from the University of Chicago have developed a way to measure changes in molecular signals using a powerful form of molecular computation that tricks strands of DNA into behaving like switches.

Scientists Jackson O’Brien and Arvind Murugan say their approach seeks to create a new way to study and exploit cell signaling. This can be achieved, they note, by turning “a weakness inherent to molecular devices in the context of digital computation, into a strength for analog computation”.

The hope is that this new form of molecular programming that’s based on synthetic biological logic circuits using specially designed strands of DNA, can be combined into logic gates. Combinations of different logic gates give smartphones, computers and the internet the computational ability to crunch numbers and send and receive information.

Eventually, the Chicago researchers imagine a form of DNA-based circuit computing that can be designed to nano-scale approaches appropriate for working with Deoxyribonucleaic acid (DNA), and incorporate the concept into a smartpill. The idea is that by programming the desired arrangement of strands of DNA, the smartpills can keep watch on our bodies and act by releasing medications through mechanisms that control specific biological targets in our cells.

So far the paper’s results look promising – keep in mind, DNA molecules are highly programmable and their storage capacity is much greater than their silicon counterparts. The researchers have simulated the behavior of their DNA-based circuits and say they work well: “We demonstrate our design principles using abstract Chemical Reaction Networks and with explicit simulations of DNA strand displacement reactions.”

While O’Brien and Murugan recognize that there are flexibility and measurement change challenges with organic mediums such as DNA circuits, they speculate that their molecular computer could lead to incredible medical treatments. In fact, they imagine DNA origami pills residing alongside our natural cells that could be used as a transport system for the precise delivery and release of medical substances.

The ultimate test, of course, will be to see if such a programmable approach is successful in people. That said however, there is little disagreement on the meaning of the concepts employed by the Chicago researchers: organic DNA-based computers are an exciting concept and an emerging technology with immense potential.

References: MIT Review, Futurism

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