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Biological Computer Diagnoses Cancer And Produces Drug - In A Test Tube

Weizmann Institute scientist's vision: Microscopic computers will function inside living tissues, performing diagnosis and administering treatment.

Rehovot, Israel - The world's smallest computer (around a trillion can fit in a drop of water) might one day go on record again as the tiniest medical kit. Made entirely of biological molecules, this computer was successfully programmed to identify - in a test tube - changes in the balance of molecules in the body that indicate the presence of certain cancers, to diagnose the type of cancer, and to react by producing a drug molecule to fight the cancer cells.

The Weizmann Institute of Science team that developed the computer published these results today in Nature. Headed by Prof. Ehud Shapiro of the Departments of Computer Sciences and Applied Mathematics, and Biological Chemistry, the team included research students Yaakov Benenson, Binyamin Gil, Un Ben-Don and Dr. Rivka Adar. Shapiro presented the team's findings today at the Brussels symposium, "Life, a Nobel Story," in which Nobel Laureates and others addressed the future of the life sciences.

As in previous biological computers produced in Shapiro's lab, input, output and "software" are all composed of DNA, the material of genes, while DNA-manipulating enzymes are used as "hardware." The newest version's input apparatus is designed to assess concentrations of specific RNA molecules, which may be overproduced or underproduced, depending on the type of cancer. Using pre-programmed medical knowledge, the computer then makes its diagnosis based on the detected RNA levels. In response to a cancer diagnosis, the output unit of the computer can initiate the controlled release of a single stranded DNA molecule that is known to interfere with the cancer cell's activities, causing it to self-destruct.


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