There have been a number of significant breakthroughs in the history of medicine. Paradigm changing technologies that have brought fundamental changes to the way illness and disease is managed. Examples of these would certainly include anaesthetics and antibiotics. But now DNA nano-technology offers real promise (albeit at the early stages) for treatment of conditions including a range of cancers and HIV.
In Britain the National Health Service (NHS) has announced plans to DNA sequence patients suffering from exotic cancers and challenging chronic conditions such as Hepatitis and some familial conditions. Further details can be found at NHS to commence Cancer DNA sequencing.
Although there are obvious concerns about the privacy of this data, it would be the first mass DNA sequencing for conditions which claim thousands of lives each year. The aim is to identify common DNA markers and sequences that may indicate a patient is susceptible to a particular condition. Similarly, if DNA markers can be identified in this way, specific tailored treatment can be designed to target the specific DNA markers rather than broad spectrum treatments such as current chemotherapy. There are even early claims that this approach could make chemotherapy a thing of the past within a generation – at least for a significant number of cancers.
Visualisation of an HIV snipping enzyme
It isn’t just cancer treatment to be looking at micro (nano) treatments. Researchers at Temple School of Medicine in Philadelphia have successfully ‘cleaned and removed’ the HIV virus from human cells. At present this is in vitro (laboratory cultured cells), but the technique looks like opening a novel way of tackling the permanent removal of HIV within the cells of the body.
The treatment involves the creation of a specific enzyme which ‘searches for’ a specific DNA sequence which occurs at the end of the HIV virus. Once this has been identified in a cell, the enzyme ‘snips’ the two ends of the sequence allowing the cells own antibodies to effectively identify and eliminate the virus.
Although this research is currently laboratory based it has successfully removed HIV from an infected cell for the first time. This means the technology could move from the current position of permanent management offered by HAART combination therapies to the potential of a permanent cure and eradication of the virus.
Whilst it is too early for researchers to comment on how repeatable this is for other virus types (such as HCV, Ebola and others) it does offer a new approach to defeating a virus at a cellular level.
Surely these novel approaches are some of the most promising and hopeful advances in medicine in recent years.