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A magic chip to change cells: healing with synthetic DNA

A chip using nanotechnology to inject synthetic DNA strands into epithelial cells changing their type. Credit: Ohio State University

Here I stumbled onto another example of pure magic. As reported in IEEE Spectrum a team of researchers at  Ohio State University have invented a way to “infect” cells in a living organism to change, partly, their DNA code thus transforming a cell type into a different one, as an example transforming an epithelial cell (skin cell) into one that “think” it is a blood vessel cell. Because of that this cell starts to proliferate and creates a blood vessel.

All cells in a living organism (with the exception of eggs and sperm cells) have the same DNA. However, each cell uses just a subset of that DNA, the one that direct the cell to play a specific role, like being a neurone or an hepatic cell. Scientists have understood (although not completely) how this mechanism works and researchers at the Ohio State University have leveraged on this understanding to create a chip (watch the clip) that can inject specific DNA strands (synthetically produced) to steer a cell to become a different type of cell, like I said an epithelial cell transforming into a blood vessel cell.

Notice that the synthetic strands is injected in the cells (through tiny pulses of electrical current) but does not “change” the cell DNA. The cells remain with their full DNA and therefore are not seen by the organisms as strangers to be fought (they do not stimulate any immune reactions). The synthetic DNA is just supplementing the original one of the cell.

So far the researchers have been able to heal a leg of a mouse by steering its epithelial cells to become blood vessels and thus reconstructing the missing vascularisation. Notice that the real healing is taken over by the organism, this procedure is just activating (and accelerating ) it.
According to the research team it should be possibile to turn epithelial cells into neurones and then to harvest them and inject them in the brain to help people with Alzheimer disease. They hope to be able starting clinical trials in 2018.  It is still a big question mark whether this procedure will prove effective in humans and to what extent it can be used.
Nevertheless this result is the first one performed on a living organisms (previous type change of cells were made on a Petri dish) and it is showing that magic is possible. Actually, to me at least, this result goes beyond science fiction, and I should say I am seeing more and more of them since I started to study the area of symbiotic autonomous systems and the related technologies.

At the same time the possibility to inject functional DNA in a living organism in such an easy way (by contact basically) opens the door to the injection of “bad” DNA. With CRISPR/Cas 9 creating DNA strings has become (almost) a child’s play and one can expect some malicious attempt to create bad DNA. Actually, in an article on Spectrum researchers have pointed out the use of bad DNA to infect computer sequencers. These sequencers are converting the four bases (A-C-G-T) into string of numbers and researchers have shown that it is possibile to create artificial (bad) DNA that will infect the sequencers once they have converted their bases into a code.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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