Cell-based computers could someday snuff out cancer

Researchers in Israel are working to develop tiny computers that can be inserted into cells to assess their condition and independently provide an appropriate treatment. In a study published at Scientific Reports, the researchers--from the Weizmann Institute of Science--highlight the success they've had in creating a genetic device that operates independently in bacterial cells.

The device monitors transcription factors--proteins that control the expression of genes in the cell. The transcription factors don't work properly in cancer cells, for instance, allowing increased cell division that leads to tumor growth.

The device conducts a "roll call" of transcription factors, and if the results meet preprogrammed parameters, it emits a protein that glows green. The researchers plan to replace that response with a different one--perhaps one that could cause the cell to self-destruct, according to an announcement from the institute.

The study drew on a concept in computing known as a NOR logical gate: The device checked for two transcription factors and glowed green only if both were missing. Using four types of genetically engineered bacteria, they created samples with no transcription factors missing; both missing; and two types in which one was missing. The device proved adept at signaling only the appropriate conditions. The researchers then moved on to more complex logical gates.

They hope to create a similar system that can operate inside human cells, which are more complicated than bacteria cells.

Researchers have been studying a host of devices and treatments that take place inside the body. They're looking at the feasibility of harnessing the motion in the eardrum, heartbeats and body heat to run low-power electronic devices that could, for instance, monitor conditions inside the ear among people with balance impairments or provide treatments such as for ear infections.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, materials scientists are at work developing biodegradable components that could deliver treatments for a set period of time, then dissolve once their work is done.

And tiny iron fillings are being injected into patients at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, which cardiologists there track through magnetic resonance imaging as a way to monitor medical therapies.

To learn more:
- read the research
- here's the announcement

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