Engineered Cells Changing Our Lives

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Engineered Cells Changing Our Lives

Last year, we examined the enormous potential impact of the world’s first self-replicating synthetic life form.  This was big news because it highlighted the advances in this area of scientific research, with its goal of creating man-made life forms and applying them to real-world problems.  Over the next 25 years or so, this breakthrough may enable us to design life forms to produce rare medicines inexpensively, cleanly turn sunlight and carbon-dioxide into fuel, and eliminate world hunger.

Although this is exciting stuff and it garners a lot of media attention, there’s another effort in the world of biological engineering that may offer far greater short-term potential.  It’s the modification of existing cell-types to perform specific tasks.  Compared to “self-replicating synthetic life forms,” that may not sound too futuristic and perhaps even a bit mundane, but the potential results are anything but boring.

These modification efforts are showing promise in a wide range of medical applications, including cell therapies in which cells are transplanted into the body to treat a variety of diseases and tissue defects.  There are also applications being pursued outside the realm of medicine, such as the production of biofuels. 

Announcements seem to come almost weekly about new applications of engineered cells.  Here are a few significant ones from the past year:

  • Researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center have developed a method for inserting a so-called “reporter gene” into genetically engineered, cancer-killing cells so they can be tracked in real time by PET scanning.1  This gives researchers the ability to watch these killer cells home in on tumors and to better understand the workings of the immune system in its fight against malignancies.
  • Scientists from Ireland’s University College Cork have engineered a bacterial strain that can significantly alter the composition of fat tissue.2  One outcome could be the creation of specialized probiotics that help prevent and treat obesity.  Fat tissue is also a risk for many diseases, including diabetes and cancer.  These results are significant because they show that those risks might also be reduced by ingesting an engineered strain of live bacteria.
  • At Yale University, a team of scientists tricked Staphylococcus aureus bacteria cells into incorporating foreign molecules within their cell walls.3  David Spiegel, a Yale chemist who led the study, explains, “By being able to manipulate the cell wall, we can in theory perturb the bacteria’s ability to interact with human tissues and host cells...

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