MIT bioengineers develop protein-based sensors that could spot and kill cancer, viral cells

By @Guneet_B on
At left, cells glow red to indicate that the detection system has been successfully delivered. The system was designed to produce green fluorescence in cells carrying a viral DNA sequence, as seen at right. Shimyn Slomovic/MIT

Reaching another milestone in the field of cancer research, a team of MIT bioengineers has designed a special protein-based modular system that could spot potential cancerous and other viral cells and take action against them. The researchers believe that their discovery could trigger programmed cell death.

According to the research team, the modular system has the potential to identify specific DNA sequences in a mammalian cell. Upon identification, a DNA-specific desired response could be triggered against the cell such as complete cell death. The researchers say that using the same process, the system can kill cancer or viral cells.

“There is a range of applications for which this could be important,” said researcher James Collins of the MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering and Institute of Medical Engineering and Science. “This allows you to readily design constructs that enable a programmed cell to both detect DNA and act on that detection, with a report system and/or a respond system.”

The technology developed by the researchers is based on zinc fingers, a type of DNA-binding proteins. The zinc fingers are known to identify and recognise any DNA sequence within a mammalian cell. The complete details of the technology have been published in the Sept. 21 Nature Methods paper.

In the study, the researchers tried to link the DNA-binding property of the zinc fingers with a consequence inside the mammalian cell. That is, in the presence of a specific DNA sequence, the zinc finger would result in a consequence within a cell.

The researchers therefore attached green fluorescent protein, or GFP, to the zinc fingers. The fingers were programmed to identify a DNA sequence from an adenovirus. That means any cell infected with adenovirus will glow green.

Researchers not only used the zinc fingers to identify the infected cells but also trigger a response against them. The team programmed the entire system to produce proteins that would activate the immune cells to work against the identified cell and the GFP.

“Since this is modular, you can potentially evoke any response that you want,” said lead author Shimyn Slomovic in a statement. “You could program the cell to kill itself, or to secrete proteins that would allow the immune system to identify it as an enemy cell so the immune system would take care of it.”

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