Magic Bullet ‘DNA Robot’ Programmed To Specifically Attack Cancer Cells

The ‘magic bullet’ has been on the minds of medical researchers for a long time. The only problem is that no such thing exists right now, but medical research has been looking at every possible pathway to get a hint of creating such a thing. Now, a “DNA robot” has been made that specifically targets cancer cells. This has been done using a technique called ‘DNA origami’!

The DNA robot. The wrapping is done with the payload inside. Then it is released when the target appears. Taken from the paper by Shawn et. al. (Courtesy: Science)

A great merger!

It’s a merger between digital logic, nanobots and biological molecular pathways. DNA can be folded into very specific shapes, using a technique called ‘DNA Origami’, the name obviously being inspired by the paper art. Then, specific drugs molecules can be ‘loaded’ onto these DNA robots and sealed with molecules called ‘aptamers’. Aptamers are molecules, made up of a small number of amino acids, which are the building blocks of large protein molecules. These aptamers can recognize the molecular signature of the delivery site and then can unlock the ‘robot’, allowing it to discharge its payload at the site (picture above). This very specific delivery system is the prized mechanism in cancer research at this moment. Generally, cancer drugs (whenever available) do a lot of harm to the healthy cells as well.

The work, led by Shawn Douglas of Wyss Institute, Harvard University, has been published in Science. He goes on to say the following to BBC News:

We’ve been working on figuring out how to build different shapes using DNA over the past several years, and other researchers have used antibodies as therapeutics, in order to manipulate cell signalling, and yet others have demonstrated that aptamers can be used to target cancer cell types. The novel part is really integrating all those different pieces and putting them together in a single device that works.

Why DNA? And what’s next?

But, why DNA for the building block for the robot? Simple. DNA is found in all cells and the body recognizes its own DNA. Thus, making the robots using DNA will eliminate any chances of toxicity or of non-recognition by the healthy cells of the body.

So what’s next? As always in science, and more so in medical science, the next step is optimization! A huge number of tests have to be performed in order to gauge the efficacy of this new technique.

Cancer research is surely at the brink of a big discovery.  There have been frequent knocks on the closed doors, and sometimes, like this present case, a punch through. It’ll be interesting to predict when that door will finally fall!

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.