- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Researchers in Israel have developed a molecular computer that someday could allow doctors to use genetic material to detect and treat cancer and other diseases from inside the body.

At this point, the minuscule biological computer — a liquid mixture of DNA strands and enzymes - exists only in a test tube.

Researchers, reporting online in the journal Nature, said they still have a long way to go to modify the device so it works within the human body.

“It is decades off, but future generations of DNA computers could function as doctors inside cells,” researcher Ehud Shapiro of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science told Nature.

Dr. Mauro Ferrari, a specialist in nanotechnology (building products atom by atom) at the National Cancer Institute, said of the research: “The concept is to build something that does not require intervention by a doctor. … This is very exciting. … It could allow the killing of cancer at a very, very early stage.”

Advocates say the biocomputers could do the work of physicians by diagnosing disease within cells as well as dispensing drugs as required.

Mr. Shapiro and other Israeli investigators ?? all biochemists and computer specialists — think that this biocomputer holds tremendous promise.

“Taking our cue from the terminology of medical treatment, we consider that our molecular computer performs in vitro (in the laboratory) a combinational version of ‘diagnosis,’ which in our example is a highly simplified model of cancer — and ‘therapy,’” the authors wrote.

Instead of being controlled by silicon chips and electrical circuits, the molecular, or so-called DNA computer, harnesses DNA strands to store information. The researchers stress that DNA can store a huge amount of information.

They point out that the computer power of 1 trillion compact discs could be stored in less than an ounce of dried DNA. Because billions of the computers can be packed into a single drop of water, they could fit easily inside a human cell, Mr. Shapiro said.

The research shows that DNA strands can sense abnormal messenger RNA, or ribonucleic acid, that can indicate the existence of certain types of lung and prostate cancer. RNA is the DNA-like molecule that helps create protein from information in genes.

When the computer detects abnormal RNA, it releases an anticancer drug, also made of DNA, which interfere with a cancer cell’s activities, causing it to self-destruct.

The computer works only in a finely balanced salt solution, and many hurdles have to be overcome before it has potential clinical application. The primary ones, Mr. Shapiro said, is a determination that the device will survive inside a biological setting, that it will not trigger an immune response and that it will be safe to use.

Molecular computers also would have to be more sophisticated than the Israeli version, which recognizes only RNA related to cancer. They also would have to deliver a variety of drugs, not just those made of DNA.

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