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Israelis design DNA 'computer' to fight disease

A designer molecule has the potential to identify mutating cells and release chemical inhibitors to prevent them from reproducing.

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science say they have devised a "biological computer" that could detect and help cure diseases such as cancer.

Described in a paper in the journal Nature, the team's biological computer is a designer version of DNA that can identify mutating cells.

When inserted into a biological environment, the designer molecule begins to sense ribonucleic acid (RNA), a similar molecule crucial to the replilcation of DNA, the chemical building block of genes. In particular, it is attracted to abnormal forms of RNA that are associated with lung or other types of cancer. The attraction occurs, because the sequence of the enzymes on the DNA strand corresponds to complementary sequences found on RNA from malignant cells.

Once detected, the designer molecule can then release chemicals to inhibit growth of malignant cells or even kill them.

Other companies, such as General Electric and Quantum Dot are also working on molecules that find and then highlight malignant cells, but their molecules are not DNA-based.

Quantum Dot has not tested its nanocrystals on humans but has used them on animals to highlight lymph node abnormalities, according to spokesman Andy Watson.

Medicine has become one of the primary focal points for the growing nanotechnology industry, although the complexity and the risks involved mean that the commercial deployment of these types of molecules will likely take years.

The Weizmann team's molecule cannot yet be tested in humans but has been shown to work in a carefully balanced salt solution.

"It is decades off, but future generations of DNA computers could function as doctors inside cells," lead researcher Ehud Shapiro said in a statement.