Synthetic Biologists Design a Gene that Forces Cancer Cells to Commit Suicide

Posted on September 4, 2011  Comments (2)

Killing a cancer cell from the inside out

To create their tumor-killing program, the researchers designed a logic circuit — a system that makes a decision based on multiple inputs. In this case, the circuit is made of genes that detect molecules specific to a type of cervical cancer cell. If the right molecules are present, the genes initiate production of a protein that stimulates apoptosis, or programmed cell death. If not, nothing happens.

Because the genes used to create the circuits can be easily swapped in and out, this approach could also yield new treatments or diagnostics for many other diseases, according to Ron Weiss, an MIT associate professor of biological engineering and one of the leaders of the research team. “This is a general technology for disease-state detection,” he says.

the researchers created a synthetic gene for a protein, called hBax, that promotes cell death. They designed the gene with two separate safeguards against the killing of healthy, non-HeLa cells: It can be turned off by high levels of microRNAs that are ordinarily low in HeLa, and can also be deactivated by low levels of microRNAs that are normally plentiful in HeLa. A single discrepancy from the target microRNA profile is enough to shut off production of the cell-death protein.

If all microRNA levels match up with the HeLa profile, the protein is produced and the cell dies. In any other cell, the protein never gets made, and the synthetic genes eventually break down.

More very cool research. It is exciting to see how much can be done when we invest in science and engineering research. Of course the path from initial research to implemented solutions is long and complex and often fails to deliver on the initial hopes. But some remarkable breakthroughs achieve spectacular results that we benefit from every day.

Related: Cancer VaccinesResearchers Find Switch That Allows Cancer Cells to SpreadGlobal Cancer Deaths to Double by 2030Cloned Immune Cells Clear Patient’s Cancer

2 Responses to “Synthetic Biologists Design a Gene that Forces Cancer Cells to Commit Suicide”

  1. Philip Cartledge
    September 6th, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

    Makes me wonder what progress we will have made a decade from now, cancer could be a thing of the past.

  2. Bocky
    September 7th, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    I can’t believe they have discovered something like this! This helps me be a little more at ease knowing that I am prone for cancer and that my mother has had it 3 times already.
    Great discovery, glad to know!

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