When tech billionaires like Elon Musk dream of Mars missions, design spacecraft, and scientists even mix building materials from Mars sand for settlements, one unknown factor is usually missing in visionaries’ calculations: People get sick. With a distance of 53 million kilometers to the nearest doctor or pharmacy, it is not fun to get sick.
NASA has compiled a list of 100 diseases that can be expected in space. It ranges from detachment of fingernails to cardiac arrest. But medicine on its way to Mars cannot be kept ready for any eventuality. The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas, uses synthetic biology on behalf of NASA. Scientists are creating organisms that astronauts can use to provide themselves with medical care.
Bacterial drugs are a whole new territory
Of course, anyone planning flights to Mars thinks a little further, but even beyond such high-flying plans for synthetic biological therapy, synthetic biology is making its way into medical treatment. The first bacterial therapies are already undergoing early clinical trials. This is a whole new area, because until now the pharmaceutical industry has been about fighting bacteria or getting them to produce medicines such as insulin in large steel tanks – not about using them as medicines.
Synthetic biology may become the key technology of the 21st century. It gives researchers the tools to change and rewrite the code of life. The new issue is available from 19.5. in the shops and from 18.5. easy to order in the hoist shop. Highlights from the magazine:
Simone Schürle-Finke, biomedical engineer at ETH Zurich, sees one of the synthetic biology of the future in medicine in living nano-robots – swarms of bacteria that can be specifically controlled. She was inspired by the 1966 film The Fantastic Voyage, in which humans and a submarine have themselves miniaturized and injected into a scientist’s bloodstream. The goal is surgery in his brain.
With this idea in mind, Schürle-Finke originally wanted to build micro- or nano-robots that would bring active ingredients to the source of the disease. But when you move in such small dimensions, everything becomes difficult, she says. Why not use the bacteria’s natural intelligence and take control of the organisms through genetic or material engineering modifications – to construct the bacteria? “Living Micro-Robots” she calls this mix of a living base with a control function.
The central problem that pharmaceutical research has always struggled with, and which causes the majority of all advanced clinical trials to fail, is how to transport a very specific drug to the right place in the right dosage. According to the researcher, the use of live therapeutics is already a significant advance as they find their own path and accumulate through reproduction. She is now working on maneuvering the bacteria to the action site quickly and purposefully. They target tumors, which their living micro-robots then attack and destroy on their own.
You can read how it attracts the bacterial micro-robots to tumors, and what opportunities synthetic biology also offers in medicine in the entire article “Medicine comes to life” at heise select (with appropriate access) and in the current issue 04/2022 of MIT Technology Review (available in the elevator store and in well-stocked kiosks).