Synthetic ‘nanofactory’ cell produces anti-cancer drugs within tumour

13 Feb 2018

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A team of researchers has successfully unleashed a synthetic ‘nanofactory’ capable of producing anti-cancer drugs within tumours.

The promise of synthetic biology is a revolution in healthcare whereby the smallest of cells can be reprogrammed by humans to perform a number of tasks for our benefit.

Among them is a new breakthrough by a team from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which has successfully treated a cancerous tumour using a synthetic cell that produces anti-cancer proteins within the tumour tissue.

This ‘nanofactory’ cell, however, is synthetic, with capacities similar – and sometimes superior – to those of natural cells. It produces a wide range of proteins, offering enormous potential in the discipline of tissue engineering or even in the production of artificial organs.

In a paper published to the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials, the research team detailed how it integrated molecular machines within lipid-based particles resembling the natural membrane of biological cells.

These microscopic machines are coded with the ability to sense biological tissue and then produce therapeutic proteins, dictated by an integrated synthetic DNA template.

To sustain themselves, the particles extract energy and the necessary building blocks to function from the tumour tissue itself.

Major step towards personalised medicine

After conducting experiments in the lab with mice, the team found that the engineered particles did exactly as planned by producing a protein to destroy the cancer cells, monitored in real time using a fluorescence microscope.

“They are modular, meaning they allow for activation of protein production in accordance with the environmental conditions,” said Prof Avi Schroeder of the research team.

“Therefore, the artificial cells we’ve developed at the Technion may take an important part in the personalised medicine trend: adjustment of treatment to the genetic and medical profile of a specific patient.”

This type of nanotechnology has increased in sophistication over the years, as shown last year by an international team of researchers led by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This particular team demonstrated how a fleet of blood-cell-sized robots injected into the body could find cancer cells with extreme precision.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic