Researchers report that have created biological computers that can diagnose cancer and produce drugs to combat the invasive disease. The computers have so far worked only in the test tube, but even that is seen as a major accomplishment.
"This work represents the first actual proof of the concept and the first actual demonstration of a possible real-life application for this kind of computer," says Dr. Ehud Shapiro, head of the research team.
Shapiro and his colleagues hope to eventually create "a 'doctor in a cell' able to operate inside a living body, spot disease and apply the necessary treatment before external symptoms even appear."
Their computers are so tiny, several trillion can fit in a drop of water. They are not made of silicon chips but of such biologically active molecules as the DNA normally found in genes. One computer was able to identify the molecules that indicate the presence of prostate cancer and release short DNA strands designed to kill the cancer cells, according to the Nature report. In another experiment, a computer detected lung cancer.
But, Shapiro says researchers have a long way to go before such computers roam through people's bodies, reports canada.com
According to timesonline.co.uk despite its tiny dimensions, it is sufficiently powerful to detect the chemical signature of prostate or lung cancer cells, and then release a drug to destroy them. The entire process takes just a couple of minutes.
The breakthrough, at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, offers the strongest indication yet that it will eventually be possible to build tiny medical "nanosubs" that hunt down tumours and germs before delivering their drugs.
Although such a "smart drug" or "doctor in a cell" is decades away, the prospect is considered among the most exciting of all the medical applications of nanotechnology.
The idea of using a microscopic hunter-killer submarine to treat disease has echoes of the 1960s science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, in which a vessel crewed by Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd is shrunk by military researchers and dispatched to destroy a blood clot threatening the life of a key scientist.