2016 was the year of the hacker, and it seemed no one was immune. We saw tech giants like Yahoo, Dropbox, and LinkedIn take hits, and even government and political groups such as the Democratic National Committee suffered losses. For many of those going into information technology (including those in our Unitek College IT programs), preventing a hack is a major part of their future careers. But on the medical side of things, the opposite is true. Instead of trying to prevent hacks, one group of scientists is trying to make hacking a standard practice when treating disease. Only instead of hacking computers, this team wants to hack human bodies… and they’re succeeding.
A team of scientists at Boston University have found a way to turn human kidney cells into tiny biocomputers. Literally. While programming cells isn’t necessarily a new idea, the field has mostly been restricted to doing so in bacteria as their DNA is simpler to manipulate. But now, thanks to Dr. Wilson Wong, human cells are on the playing field.
The way the process works is fascinating. It’s also very complicated, so the easiest way to explain how the system works is to give the example of a Rube Goldberg machine. (If you’re unfamiliar with Rube Goldberg machines, here’s a great example). Essentially, scientists insert new strands of DNA and proteins into cells that do very specific actions when activated, creating a chain reaction that either cuts or activates a gene.
For example, the researchers inserted “code” that produces a fluorescent green protein in a cell (a signal easily spotted) but ONLY if the cell detects a specific drug nearby. Basically, they turned a human cell into a complex drug detection computer, one that lights up when it gets a positive.
The full process is obviously much, much more complicated than the explanation above, so be sure and check out the full breakdown at ScienceMag.org to get the full picture.
“With these circuits,” says Wong, “we took a completely different design approach and have created a framework for researchers to target specific cell types and make them perform different types of computations, which will be useful for developing new methods for tissue engineering, stem cell research and diagnostic applications, just to name a few.”
So far, Wong and his team have completed 113 different types of circuits, all operating with a 96.5 percent success rate. And while the team’s work is simply “proof of concept” at the moment, the possibilities are endless. Not only could this technology help in finding and diagnosing disease, but cells could potentially be programmed to hunt down and destroy tumors-a huge step in the fight against cancer.
“I have been doing synthetic biology research for 15 years and I’ve never seen such a complex circuits work on the first try like with this platform,” says Wong. “We’re excited to get it out there so people can start using it, and we’re excited to see what they come up with.”
For more information on beginning your own career in the rapidly growing health care field, Unitek College can help! Contact us here for more information about our many nursing programs and opportunities.