Cells With 'Built-In Genetic' Circuit May Help Stop Cancer

Scientists in London have created cells with a  'built-in genetic circuit' that produces a molecule inhibiting the ability of tumours to survive and grow in their low oxygen environment.  University of Southampton researchers have engineered these cells, which actively repels cancer cells. 

Professor Ali Tavassoli, one of the lead authors said: "There are various defense mechanisms built into human cells, such as proteins that spot DNA damage, but there are also gaps in this defense system that are exploited by disease.  We were wondering if it is possible to equip human cells with the ability to sense and respond to a disease marker, specifically by encoding the conditional production of a molecule that fights back when the start of a disease is sensed by the circuit we introduce."

The Researchers Studied The Gap In A Person's Defence Mechanism

Professor Tavassoli said that a human's cell consists of various defence mechanism, but there are certain gaps and the diseases, such as cancer, use this to enter the body.  With this in mind, they started studying the possibility of equipping human cells with a sense to recognize and stop the disease. 

The Study Used The Correlation Between the HIF Protein And Cancer

The researchers were particularly interested in a protein called hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (HIF-1), which helps tumors keep growing in low-oxygen environments.  However, this protein is hijacked by almost all cancers. This link is well established and there is solid and validated correlation between HIF and cancer," Tavassoli said.

"We designed the circuit as a plasmid (read: a small, circular, double-stranded DNA molecule that is distinct from a cell's chromosomal DNA) and then used an enzyme to incorporate it into a specific location on the chromosome of a human cell line.  The circuit is designed so that the production of our HIF inhibitor is switched on only when cells are in hypoxia and when we have added a compound called doxycycline to them, giving us full control over it," he added. 

The study is still at its early stage and is not available for human testing yet. 

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