The technology allows unprecedented specificity and “personalization” of the manufacturing process.
Now comes another big advance for the nanotech and biomedical industries: through a unique integration and application of this technology, scientists have achieved rapid, DNA-specific, drug design and manufacturing.
Building a Cancer Drug One Molecule and at Time
Bioengineering scientists from Parabon Nanolabs have developed a new drug to fight gliobalstoma — a lethal brain cancer.– using a computer aided design (CAD) program linked to a special search platform and nano-scale, 3D printer. The technology allows a designed drug to be built, and then ‘printed out”, one atom/one molecule at a time, like a ‘molecular sentence’ on paper. The cancer-fighting drug was designed using a new DNA self-assembly technique enabled by a ‘drag and drop’ feature of the CAD program.
The new design technology is called the Parabon Essemblix Drug Development Platform and combines a CAD software program called inSçquio with the newest nano fabrication technology. The system, which received its official patent award earlier this year, was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.
“We can now ‘print,’ molecule by molecule, exactly the compound that we want.What differentiates our nanotechnology from others is our ability to rapidly, and precisely, specify the placement of every atom in a compound that we design.” stated Steven Armentrout, the principal investigator on the NSF grants and co-developer of Parabon’s technology. [source: NSF release]
How it Works
The inSçquio software allows scientists to custom design macromolecules with highly specific, functional components — components that can precisely fit cell receptors or function in critical cell-signaling pathways. Once the functional molecular components are designed, they are then run through a supercomputing platform called the Parabon Computation Grid which performs searches of DNA sequences that can self-assemble these designed components (and the system then prints out the desired drugs).
In this way, the researchers were able to “explore the space of all possible assemblies” — and synthesize trillions of identical copies of the designer molecules — all within a short time frame of a few weeks or even a few days…a feat that is unique in the a drug discovery industry that often relies on (costly) trial-and-error approaches to new drug testing.
Senior research scientist at Parabon, Hong Zhong, explains:
“When designing a therapeutic compound, we combine knowledge of the cell receptors we are targeting or biological pathways we are trying to affect with an understanding of the linking chemistry that defines what is possible to assemble. It’s a deliberate and methodical engineering process, which is quite different from most other drug development approaches in use today.” [source: NSF release]
What it Means for the Future of Medicine
Currently, most drugs are developed using a screening technique in which new candidate drugs are used against therapeutic targets in a “see what sticks” manner. The new tech will surely supplant this costly and inefficient approach.
“Instead, we’re designing very specific drugs based on their molecular structure, with target molecules that bind to receptors on specific types of cancer cells. In plug-and-play fashion, we can swap in or swap out any of the functional components, as needed, for a range of treatment approaches.” stated Armentrout. [source: NSF release]
The advance will speed up new drug development and testing as well as enable novel drug design that will help make the promised future of “personalized medicine” a reality.
Next up: researchers at Parabon are planning to use the new technology to develop vaccines for “biodefense” as well as highly-targeted gene therapies (based upon personal genomic information). There are also plans in the works by other research labs to apply CAD software and nano-printing tech to blood vessel and organ tissue generation.
Additionally, the technology could be readily adapted to fabrication of nano-scale circuits (“logic gates”) for utilization in molecular nanosensors.
Primary source for this post: NSF release
Some additional information for this post came from the io9.com article: A 3D printer that manufactures new cancer drugs with drag-and-drop DNA, by George Dvorsky.
All images via Parabon Nanolabs. Images: (top) 3D molecule printing, (middle) DNA self-assembly, (bottom) Essemblix nano-manufacturing technology (developed by Parabon NanoLabs with NSF support).
Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles and essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is also an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website (http://www.chaosmosis.net). Michael currently lives in Seattle, Washington.