A few days ago the Peres Center for Peace in Tel-Aviv hosted a simulcast of TEDMED, but augmented it with a bit of local fare. Although the sessions were short, only three talks, they highlighted the innovation and vision apparent within the Israeli biotechnology environment.
The first to take the stage was Omri Drori, founder of Genome Compiler. a company built on the idea that biology can also be seen as information technology. While computers work in binary, DNA is coded very similarly except that it has four inputs (the four bases) as compared to two (0 and 1) in computers. The genetic code is the basic digital input and chromosomes act like software. However, there is no compiler for this biological data, and this is one of the issues this group is trying to address. We are living in an age in which synthetic biology is readily available: we can buy amino acids, nucleic acids and also compose a sequence of DNA and have it sent to us by mail. The capabilities of both reading and writing DNA have increased substantially over the last decade. In 2010 the first synthetic cell, a bacterial cell, was synthesized. Since it was made in a laboratory environment the scientists had complete control of the DNA synthesis, to the point that they wrote email addresses and quotes within the DNA sequence! The current technology also allows the synthesis of yeast cells. There are many application for this kind of synthetic biology in which we can write up a long “code” of DNA and alter the behavior of a cell or even organism. For example, work underway by Amyris and Sanofi is developing yeast and bacteria that have been manipulated so that they produce medication. This can also be done with vaccines.
One of Omri’s major concerns is that we live on finite resources while biology uses renewable resources to get energy. His fantastic long term goal is to harness the ability of many marine organisms to glow in the dark and transfer this ability into trees through the introduction of new genes. We can then have glowing trees at night and our use of electricity can be drastically reduced.
The next speaker was Amal Ayoub, founder and CEO of Metallo Therapy, a company that is developing techniques for using gold nanoparticles for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Current imaging technologies have some practical limitations. While X-rays give us information about the structure of the body, such as muscles and bones, they don’t teach us about the size and location of tumors and whether they have metastasized, since under this modality tumors look similar to other tissues. On the other hand, the use of CT gives us more information about the size of the tumor but less information about the location of the tumor since we cannot see the global structure of the body. Superimposing these images is one of the most accurate ways to locate a tumor, however we still cannot know if the tumor has undergone metastasis and if there are other foci in the body. Often, this information is only clear following surgery and even then, small growths are often overlooked.
The use of gold nanoparticles aims to increase our diagnostic capabilities. These particles can be specifically targeted to tumors, usually through the use of antibodies, which then show up in standard imaging techniques. Furthermore, the particles actually stain the tumors, facilitating their visualization and removal during surgery. Another use of the particles in addition to imaging is for the actual treatment of cancer. Gold particles can absorb radiation and then release it in a very localized and strong manner. The hope is that we will be able to irradiate these particles, inject them into the blood stream, and once they get to the tumor they’ll release a high dose of radiation and destroy it.
The final speaker was Ido Bachelet for the Institute of Nanotechnology at Bar Ilan University who introduced us to the use of nanorobots in medicine. His lab, the multidisciplinary Research Group for Bio-design, uses computer-aided design of DNA folding to fabricate nanoscale robots about 50 nanometers in size. These nanorobots can then be programmed to carry out autonomous tasks in biological systems.
This technology has many practical applications, such as for a novel drug delivery system. The nanorobots can be programmed so they are in an “off” state when injected in the body and then go to an “on” state when they open and release a drug. This transition to an “on” state can occur when the robot senses a change in its environment, for example the appearance of chemicals indicating tumor growth, or can even be preprogrammed by a doctor using a computer. Since the nanorobots will only release the drugs at the correct time and place, we will be able to use drugs that have been shown to be very effective against the target disease yet also highly toxic for the rest of the body.
Furthermore, these nanorobots can also communicate and cooperate. They can, at least under laboratory conditions, assemble into a string of robots that may be able to build a “bridge” over a lesion or injury. This can also aid in drug delivery as well as wound healing and functional recovery.
All in all it was a fascinating event and we’re glad to have heard from some of the Israelis doing groundbreaking work in advancing medical technology.