PhotoA recent development by biological engineers at MIT may allow us to detect DNA abnormalities and fight disease at the molecular level.

It may seem like something out of science fiction, but scientists may soon be able to use a certain class of proteins that can alter DNA strands inside of mammalian cells, effectively allowing them to either detect potential problems or completely destroy them from the inside out.

The implications for this type of research could be groundbreaking. Imagine being able to detect and destroy cancerous cells as quickly as they can multiply, or before they even have a chance to cause damage.

This goes beyond cancer, though. Many of the most dangerous diseases and medical conditions could be controlled by using the technological system that resulted from this research.

“There is a range of applications for which this could be important,” said James Collins, professor of Medical Engineering and Science at MIT. “This allows you to readily design constructs that enable a programmed cell to both detect DNA and act on that detection, with a report system and/or a respond system.”

Changing DNA structure

But how does this system work? The key component of the research is a class of proteins called “zinc fingers,” which can bind to DNA segments inside of cells. The great thing about these proteins is that they can recognize the coding of any DNA sequence.

Other smaller types of proteins called “inteins” and “exteins” were also utilized to make the researchers’ system work. Basically, an intein is a short protein that can be inserted into a larger protein chain to split it apart. The two pieces of protein that are left over after this process are exteins.

The full process for how these proteins interact with each other is slightly complex, but the end result produces something that is astonishing. By splitting proteins and using the zinc fingers, scientists were able to make any cell affected with a certain adenovirus glow green. Being able to detect exactly which cells are infected could give medical professionals a wealth of information that they have never had before.

Eradicating disease

Revealing the troublesome cells is only one part of the process though; the system that the researchers created also allows these cells to be killed off en masse with extreme accuracy. This can be accomplished by programming affected cells with new information via the zinc fingers, inteins, and exteins. Since the new information is programmed at the genetic level, scientists could program bad cells to do anything they wanted.

“Since this is modular, you can potentially evoke any response that you want….You could program the cell to kill itself, or to secrete proteins that would allow the immune cells to fight the infection,” said Shimyn Slomovic, lead author of the team’s paper. These are just two examples, but there many other ways that the cells could be programmed to destroy themselves to prevent spreading of any virus or disease.

More research is needed before this new system can be ready for public use. Researchers are currently testing it to see if it can detect latent HIV proviruses, which often remain dormant in cells even after the disease has been treated. It is possible that these advances could lead to HIV, and diseases like it, being permanently eliminated.

“Latent HIV provirus is pretty much the final barrier to curing AIDS, which currently is incurable simply because the provirus sequence is there, dormant, and there aren’t any ways to eradicate it,” said Slomovic.

But even though the system is not yet ready for extensive use, the researchers believe that it can still be an invaluable research tool going forward. Scientists could, for example, use it to study the nature of the genetic structure or how certain diseases like cancer spread and change. The full study has been published in the journal Nature Methods

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