Pulse 48: Turning Biology into an Engineering Discipline

9 January 2018
Giulio Prisco

Molecular Engineering

The Center for Cellular Construction at UC San Francisco wants to “turn biology into an engineering discipline.” A recent study (see below) represents an important step toward this goal. "We’re beginning to see that it’s possible to break down natural developmental processes into engineering principles that we can then repurpose to build and understand tissues," said one of the authors of the study. "It’s a totally new angle in tissue engineering."

“Development is starting to become a canvas for engineering, and by breaking the complexity of development down into simpler engineering principles, scientists are beginning to better understand, and ultimately control, the fundamental biology,” said the lead scientist. “In this case, the intrinsic ability of mechanically active cells to promote changes in tissue shape is a fantastic chassis for building complex and functional synthetic tissues.”

Building life-like 3D tissue with DNA-programmed assembly of cells. Bioengineers at UC San Francisco have shown that many of the complex folded shapes that form mammalian body plans and internal tissue structures can be re-created with very simple instructions. A study published in Developmental Cell shows that mesenchymal cells play a special role in folding some tissues during development, creating forces within the tissue that can cause it to bend and fold into a variety of shapes, and describes how the bioengineers used a precision 3D cell-patterning technology, called DNA-programmed assembly of cells (DPAC), to set up an initial spatial template of a tissue that then folds itself into complex shapes in ways that replicate how tissues assemble themselves hierarchically during development. According to the scientists, this research could open the way to future applications ranging from lab-grown organs to soft biological robots.

Extreme gene silencing for cell reprogramming. Researchers at the the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a new approach to reprogramming cell identity for use in regenerative medicine studies, and eventually in the clinic. In a study published in Molecular Cell, the scientists show how “an extreme form of gene silencing” allowed them to replenish diseased liver tissue with healthy tissue derived from a different tissue, such as skin cells, from the same individual in a process called direct-cell reprogramming.

Toward better and safer pain medications. Scientists at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and collaborating institutions have created a new drug-like compound that activates only one specific receptor, whose crystal structure has been found. A research paper, to be published in Cell, shows a route toward creating opioids that relieve pain without causing severe side effects. According to the researchers, this is a key step in the development of better pain medications.

Treating gut inflammation with precise editing of gut bacteria. UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers have used precision editing of the bacterial populations in the gut to prevent or reduce the severity of inflammation in laboratory mice suffering from colitis. A study published in Nature describes a strategy to prevent or reduce inflammation in the laboratory animals, with no evident effect on healthy animals. The overall idea is to use heavy tungsten to disrupt energy production by bacteria, which slows down bacterial growth during flares of inflammation.

Promising advances toward efficient obesity treatment. Researchers from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have developed a promising anti-obesity drug that shrinks fat without suppressing appetite. The drug, which selectively shrinks excess fat by increasing fat cell metabolism, significantly reduced body weight and blood cholesterol levels without lowering food intake in obese mice, according to a study published in Biochemical Pharmacology. Since obesity is a major public health problem around the world, and a leading cause of healthcare costs and compromised quality of life, this research is very significant.

Generic skin cream may reduce skin cancer risks. New results from a clinical trial involving more than 900 military veterans at high risk for keratinocyte carcinoma skin cancer indicate that using the generic skin cream fluorouacil 5 percent for two to four weeks may reduce the risk of a squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) needing surgery by 75 percent within a year. The results of the clinical trial are published in JAMA Dermatology.

Nanoparticles inhibit the progression of pancreatic cancer in laboratory mice. Scientists at Tel Aviv University have found evidence for an inverse correlation between a known oncogene (a gene that promotes the development of cancer) and the expression of an oncosuppressor microRNA as the reason for extended pancreatic cancer survival. Working with laboratory mice, the scientists then devised a novel nanoparticle that selectively delivers genetic material to a tumor, preventing side effects in surrounding healthy tissues. According to the researchers, the study, published in Nature Communications, may serve as a basis for the development of an effective cocktail of drugs for pancreatic and other cancers.

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