Computers for your cells? Sounds like the plot to a Star Trek episode, but researchers report that they’ve developed a biocomputer that can figure out if a cell is cancerous and destroy it by triggering apoptosis —all by detecting miRNA levels, potentially leading to much more targeted cancer therapies than what’s available now.
The researchers from Boston and Zurich developed their biocomputer, or “classifier” gene circuit, to specifically identify HeLa cells in populations with other kinds of cells. To do this, they had to figure out what makes HeLa cells “HeLa-like.” It turns out that these cells express miR-21, miR-17, and miR-30a at higher levels, and they express miR-141, miR-142(3p), and miR146a at lower levels than other cell types do. So, the biocomputer recognizes any cell with that miRNA profile as being “HeLa.”
And once a cell is categorized as “HeLa,” the cellular MacBooks are programmed to produce human Bcl-2-associated X protein—aka, hBax— which triggers apoptosis and kills the cell. Non-HeLa cells remain unharmed.
The researchers say the biocomputer worked well, other than the occasional HeLa cell that survived or normal cell that was destroyed. More work is needed to optimize the circuit, but this platform could be used in the future for targeted therapies, for in vitro drug screening or monitoring of developmental processes.
Download the latest biocomputer updates at Science, September 2011.