A scientist uses a pipette to isolate DNA samples in a research laboratory.

    Cells can be ‘programmed’ to fight disease

    19 September 2017

    Cells can be programmed to fight cancer, influenza and other serious health conditions according to new research by the University of Warwick.

    Ribonucleic acid (RNA) can be genetically engineered to allow scientists to program the actions of a cell.

    As well as fighting disease and injury in humans, the researchers say they could also harness this technique to control plant cells and reverse environmental and agricultural issues.

    RNA molecules can be produced and organised into tailor-made sequences of commands (similar to codes for computer software) which feed specific instructions into cells.

    This, the researchers say, will allow a novel type of personalised and efficient healthcare, allowing us to ‘download’ a sequence of actions into cells, instructing them to execute complex decisions encoded in the RNA.

    The researchers made their invention by first modelling all possible RNA sequence interactions on a computer, and then constructing the DNA encoding the optimal RNA designs, to be validated on bacteria cells in the laboratory.

    After inducing the bacterial cells to produce the genetically engineered RNA sequences, the researchers observed that they had altered the gene expression of the cells according to the RNA program, demonstrating that cells can be programmed with pre-defined RNA commands, in the manner of a computer’s microprocessor.

    Professor Jaramillo said: ‘The capabilities of RNA molecules to interact in a predictable manner, and with alternative conformations, has allowed us to engineer networks of molecular switches that could be made to process arbitrary orders encoded in RNA.’

    ‘Throughout the last year, my group has been developing methodologies to enable RNA sensing the environment, perform arithmetic computations and control gene expression without relying on proteins, which makes the system universal across all living kingdoms.’

    ‘The cells could read the RNA ‘software’ to perform the encoded tasks, which could make the cells detect abnormal states, infections, or trigger developmental programs.’