Innovation for Space. Revolution on earth (An introduction to Synthetic Biology – Part IV)

Solutions developed to help Astronaut’s on inter-planetary missions can also be used to treat major health problems on earth. That’s not all, the future looks promising, with all the innovations that are going to change our world for the good. But there’s time and we need to tread with patience and caution.

A personalized doctor

NASA has been a pioneer of everything space. Being a premier space agency that manages human flights on a regular basis, every aspect of the latter is of paramount importance. On earth, thanks to the ozone layer, we are protected by any harmful radiation coming from an extraterrestrial source. Beyond the low earth orbit, when human expeditions are sent towards the Moon, Mars and other faraway worlds, the radiation from the Sun can be lethal.

Why is radiation considered bad? Well, radiation, the kind of what one finds beyond the atmosphere, can ‘slice-up’ DNA. Oftentimes, this can be repaired, where a huge portion of the proteins work on editing the genetic code, patching any mismatch. The real issue lies in some of those sliced genes, which may be involved in controlling cell generation. This way either an unabated cellular growth will pave way for a possible occurrence of cancer, whereas on the contrary, a cell destruction program can go into an overdrive. Ultraviolet radiation causes sunburn in addition to damaging the DNA. The inbuilt mechanisms in our bodies, upon detecting such irregularities immediately kick up the production of cytokines. These then travel from one cell to another, activating repair codes. The effectiveness of cytokines is limited though, with added therapies in place that aim to boost the natural response mechanism in the body.

The scientists at NASA Ames Research Center have devised a plan to overcome this arduous challenge. A 2005 simulation by the Federal Aviation Administration showed that the astronauts, when continuously exposed to such high radiation, will have health risks ranging from cataract to cancer. Shielding from such high radiation can’t be handled by the spaceship alone. A construction for that purpose would add a lot of weight, thereby increasing the cost of the missions. Does this mean humans visiting Mars and other places isn’t viable? David Loftus and his team have built a synthetic program that can come to the rescue of the astronauts.

Biocapsules for those traveling in Space Capsules

These programs, contained in what NASA calls ‘Biocapsules’ can be used to sense the rise in radiation and thereby release medicine or in this case cytokines. A hormone called G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) is already used in treating cancer patients who receive radiation therapy. So it is a matter of stuffing these hormones and related gene material (in the millions) and injecting it into the body. These capsules are to be placed right under the skin of an astronaut. The use of these Biocapsules isn’t limited because, in the place of G-CSF, other genes/hormones can be used, which will regulate other vital stats in an astronaut, automatically. Just like a doctor by your side, in this case, it’s right under your skin!

With an estimated 422 million people affected (as of 2014), Diabetes mellitus is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, amputation of legs and stroke. According to the scientists behind the Biocapsule, “Pancreatic islet cells, either from animals or synthetically created, with glucose-sensing and insulin secretion functions embedded in them would be contained in a version of the capsules.” Depending on the severity of diabetes, any number of capsules can be implanted. Thinking about the possibilities of this development, the future looks bright for diabetics. Not only do they have to constantly monitor blood-sugar levels, the need to inject insulin can be done away with. The biggest respite is for those who can now sleep peacefully at night without the fear of a sudden surge in the glucose levels.

Taking a cue from the ‘sniper circuits’ for cancer, these capsules can also be used to provide right doses of chemotherapy to the exact location, especially in those suffering from brain cancer. The possibilities don’t end there. Hemophilia is a condition where those suffering from it have some important proteins that coagulate the blood, missing. Instead of regular injections, they can now be treated using Biocapsules. Alright, so how does these Biocapsules survive in the harsh conditions within our bodies? Isn’t the human body evolved to detect and terminate foreign bodies that it perceives as threats?

These capsules are created using a carbon nanotubes structure, to which our bodies are non-reactive. The more important chemical composition is then filled and capped by some more nanotubes. The porous structure of the capsule ensures there are enough pores for the genes/hormones to be released into the surrounding environment.

Engineering our way forward

The Synthetic Biology division at NASA is invested in developing solutions to various challenges space travel entails. A balanced diet is healthy. That’s no surprise. Here on earth, we can consume natural food or sometimes supplements to achieve this goal. Astronauts at the ISS (International Space Station) are sent periodical supplies of nutritious food. There have already been many innovative steps taken to ensure the same. But what about those who’ll be traveling for long periods, away from earth? Scientists are working on making available, on-demand nutrients that can be ingested via single-use packets. These will contain microbes developed specifically to produce nutrients. The trick here is to hydrate the packets only as long as the microbes can generate the necessary nutrients. Once a threshold is reached, they are deactivated and the mixture will be available for consumption. Zeaxanthin, a vital component to promote healthy functioning of vision is the first to be produced using yeast. It must be noted that those spend a long time in space face the risk of poorer vision after space flight, immediately or sometime later.

It takes millions of years for crude oil to be created, deep within the earth. And it is the single biggest raw material to produce everything from petrol, construction materials, plastics and even cosmetics. How can the production of crude oil be substituted in space? Genetically engineered microbes can be used to produce all of the end products by converting carbon dioxide to organic materials, a lot faster than nature. They can be used to produce fibers, plastics and all the stuff required to construct colonies in far-off lands.

All these inventions are still a long way from being in the mainstream. The cost factor is not to be forgotten either. The capsules, for example, need to be tested on animals before human testing. Adam Rutherford, the author of “Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself” states that evolution, like engineering, has been witness to many iterations. He says that “the real selection under scrutiny in evolution is individual genes, the functional natural component parts of living things.” With rising complexity, noise is introduced in any testing area. For example, the E.coli used to produce waves of green didn’t perform perfectly in trials, with some being brighter and some slower. This showed that all cells don’t work in the same manner, although similar in their nature.

Thinking about these systems along the parallels of electrical engineering, they are like the complex computing logic boards of the day. During testing, unforeseen errors are observed, prompting corresponding patches. Over time, these machines are able to work in unsavory conditions. Similarly, Synthetic Biology needs to develop products that can adapt and function optimally under unpredictable conditions. And a path towards achieving that is to observe the noise, those places where it won’t work. Unless all such questions are asked and resolved, a standard DNA construction kit using gene circuits cannot be realized. A promising aspect, however, is the effort that synthetic biologists have put in to make prefabricated and interchangeable parts for gene circuits. In this manner, it is expected that one day we’ll be able to see many of such individual components that can be mix-and-matched to prepare individualized cures.

Notes:

This series is inspired by Chapter 9 – “Logic in Life” of the book “Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself” by Adam Rutherford. [Rutherford, A. (2013).Creation. New York: Current.]

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