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Building 'smart' cell-based therapies
Date:4/17/2014

A Northwestern University synthetic biology team has created a new technology for modifying human cells to create programmable therapeutics that could travel the body and selectively target cancer and other sites of disease.

Engineering cell-based, biological devices that monitor and modify human physiology is a promising frontier in clinical synthetic biology. However, no existing technology enabled bioengineers to build such devices that sense a patient's physiological state and respond in a customized fashion.

"The project addressed a key gap in the synthetic biology toolbox," says Joshua Leonard, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. "There was no way to engineer cells in a manner that allowed them to sense key pieces of information about their environment, which could indicate whether the engineered cell is in healthy tissue or sitting next to a tumor."

Funded by the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research is available to read online in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.

Leonard's team worked for nearly four years to close this gap. The end result is a protein biosensor that sits on the surface of a cell and can be programmed to sense specific external factors. For example, the engineered cell could detect big, soluble protein molecules that indicate that it's next to a tumor. When the biosensor detects such a factor, it sends a signal into the engineered cell's nucleus to activate a gene expression program, such as the production of tumor-killing proteins or chemicals. Since this toxic program would be activated only near tumor cells, such an approach could minimize side effects as well as improve therapeutic benefits.

Called a Modular Extracellular Sensor Architecture (MESA), the biosensor platform is completely self-contained so that several diff
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Contact: Megan Fellman
fellman@northwestern.edu
847-491-3115
Northwestern University
Source:Eurekalert

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