New research has discovered that bacteria could effectively be programmed to produce drugs, a breakthrough that may lead to new treatments for a variety of diseases and conditions.
Scientists at the University of Warwick and the University of Surrey used synthetic biology based on engineering principles to see if it would be possible to programme bacterial cells by managing the way essential resources are allocated inside them.
They were particularly interested in ribosomes, which inhabit cells and build proteins when required for particular cellular functions. There can be as many as ten million ribosomes inside mammalian cells and when proteins are needed, the nucleus sends mRNA to these ribosomes. They are then able to bond amino acids in a chain at a rate of up to 200 per minute to synthesise the relevant proteins.
Ribosomes only have a temporary existence and when they have created a polypeptide in this way, the two units of which they are composed break up or are reused.
The researchers found there was a way to efficiently control the distribution of these microscopic ribosomes by adding synthetic circuitry to the cells.
They used the engineering principal of a feedback control loop to develop a unique system through ribosomes can be dynamically distributed, enhanced and used to perform bespoke functions. Once the ribosomes were released, the bacterial cells would act as factories for whatever proteins they had been instructed to contain.
It is hoped that using this method could provide vast possibilities for healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry, with bacteria potentially acting as drug production tools to create new antibiotics and other compounds.
"Synthetic biology is about making cells easier to engineer so that we can address many of the most important challenges facing us today," explained Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Warwick Declan Bates.
Co-researcher Jose Jimenez from the University of Surrey added: "By learning about how cells operate and testing the constraints under which they evolve, we can come up with ways of engineering cells more efficiently for a wide range of applications in biotechnology."
Using bacteria as delivery tools for therapeutic medicine is nothing new. Indeed, recombinant DNA technology, which involves inserting DNA from different species into a host organism, has long been used to turn bacteria into useful delivery devices.
It is also hoped that using bacteria that grow selectively in tumours could one day be developed as a way to deliver drugs directly to tumours and not to the surrounding, healthy tissue in cancer patients.