The 1997 US film Men In Black followed two secret agents who protected humans from extraterrestrial aliens, and aliens from humans. They had access to several (fictional) gadgets — the most notable of which was the “neuralizer.” The neuralizer allowed an agent to flash a light into the victim’s eyes, which deleted their memory and allowed the agent to suggest a new memory to overwrite the old one.
A research team at University of Oxford, UK, developed a gene that could only be activated with a laser, a technology that at first glance bears the same mystique as Hollywood’s neuralizer. While the Oxford team’s development cannot affect memory, it may have beneficial medical uses.
With this idea in mind, it is possible to imagine using a laser to activate only the toxic genes in cancerous tumors to destroy them. What is meant by “toxic genes?” Cells contain genes that turn on and off cell-death scenarios in case the cell is compromised or damaged, like a controlled self-destruct sequence. This means that the tumor cells receive the light, which activates the self-destruct gene, and the surrounding healthy cells would be left alone! Light activated DNA can be regulated outside the body (so no need for multiple surgeries) and targeted (the light only goes to the place where it’s useful).
In biology, genes are pieces of DNA that store instructions for making proteins. Proteins are responsible for the major functions inside the cell: they break down food for energy, carry oxygen in blood cells, etc. The gene developed by the researchers at Oxford encodes for a protein that creates a microscopic tunnel between two cells. This tunnel allows cells to send chemical signals through the tunnel only when the laser is activated. In this study, the group used some 3D-printed synthetic cells with this light-activated DNA inside that, when illuminated with a laser, could communicate to each other through the pore spaces using small electrical pulses.
When exposed to the laser, only the cells with the light-activated DNA would express this pore gene and create pores to cells without the light-activated DNA inside, such as tumor cells. In the future, doctors could place both the synthetic cells and a tumor-killing medicine inside of a tumor, where the synthetic cells could first generate pores between synthetic cells and tumor cells. These pores would then allow for the release of medicine to only the tumor. What about healthy cells? This new method can not yet discriminate between diseased and healthy cells and needs more research, so localizing these synthetic cells with light-activated DNA to a small area in a tumor with a tightly-regulated toxic gene is paramount. This small gene is a huge step in the realm of targeted medicines!