Bio-computers are systems comprised of biologically derived molecules, such as DNA and proteins. Accordingly, these synthetic biologics are used to build circuitry inside cells which can perform computational calculations involving storing, retrieving, and processing data. In turn, it is hoped these ‘smart cells’ will lead to smart drugs; living computers inside the body that are able to monitor, target, and treat the host body and disease autonomously.
Autonomous synthetic biologics
Now, a study from researchers led by UC San Francisco develops an artificial protein capable of building autonomous circuits to control any cellular process. The team states their novel artificial protein can be used to build brand-new biological circuits inside living cells. Subsequently transforming ordinary cells into smart cells endowed with autonomous abilities. The two studies are published in the journal Nature, whose links can be found here and here.
Previous studies show many therapies are safe and effective only when administered at the right time and in very precise doses. Therefore, when medicines are administered at the wrong time or using the incorrect dosage, they can be ineffective or even harmful.
Patient adherence can also be a problem with drug efficacy. Meaning monitoring systems are also desirable to detect any problems or diseases. The current study develops smart cells exhibiting behavior similar to tiny autonomous robots. Moreover, these exobiologics have the potential to detect damage and disease, delivering drugs as and when needed.
The current study designs an artificial protein on a computer, capable of building brand-new autonomous circuits inside living cells once synthesized. Results show the protein, dubbed the Latching Orthogonal Cage-Key pRotein, or LOCKR resembles a barrel containing a molecular arm possessing the ability to control virtually any cellular process once activated. Data findings show the arms can direct molecular traffic inside cells, degrade specific proteins, and initiate the cell’s self-destruct process.
The lab also developed a version of the protein called degronLOCKR, which can be switched on and off to degrade a protein of interest. Furthermore, degronLOCKR can also construct circuits to dynamically regulate cellular activity in response to cues from the cell’s internal and external environments.
Controlling cellular processes
Results show when the circuits, which include a genetically encoded sensor, detect the disruption of normal cell activity, degronLOCKR responds by destroying the proteins causing the disruption to the cellular software. Indeed degronLOCKR will perform this role until the cell returns to normal.
The team surmises they have engineered proteins for generating complex synthetic circuitry in cells for biotechnological and therapeutic applications. For the future, the researchers plan to transform cells in vivo into smart cells by installing degronLOCKR-based circuits. It is in this way they hope to treat a variety of diseases and ailments, including traumatic brain injury.
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Michelle is a health industry veteran who taught and worked in the field before training as a science journalist.
Featured by numerous prestigious brands and publishers, she specializes in clinical trial innovation--expertise she gained while working in multiple positions within the private sector, the NHS, and Oxford University.