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New Research Center Aims to Develop "Smart Cells" for Drug Delivery

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Following on the establishment of the University of California, San Diego's National Institutes of Health-funded systems biology center, a new National Centers for Systems Biology has been established at the University of California, San Francisco, thanks to a five-year, $15.4 million NIH grant. Researchers at UCSF will collaborate with their UCSD counterparts on research into the development of "smart cells" to facilitate drug delivery and develop methods that may enable researchers to engineer a patient's own cells for personalized treatment.

Wendell Lim, a professor at UCSF who will lead the new center, says that some members of both centers have already started collaborating on a proactive approach to cell design, known as forward engineering. "Both centers are doing work on understanding how cells respond to different types of stresses, like heat, osmolarity, and DNA damage, and [how] they allow the cell to best survive," says Lim. "In addition to mapping the complex cellular networks from a top-down perspective, our center is also very interested in understanding the fundamental design rules of how networks can be built to accomplish important biological functions — this might be considered to be a complementary bottom-up, or engineering, view."

Lim and his collaborators at the UCSD center aim to build a catalog of all biological networks responsible for information processing in the cell in order to discover whether there is a type of "periodic table" of core circuits that evolution turns to when trying to solve particular classes of functions. "We hope that combining the top-down and bottom-up approaches will allow us to better break down and understand the very complex network structures that are emerging from genomic and proteomic approaches," he says. "This bottom-up approach provides potential guides to actually designing or modifying cellular networks to generate new or altered behaviors — a so-called synthetic biology approach."

The UCSF team also hopes to build circuits that could be useful for biotechnology or therapeutics, such as smart cells that control the expression and activity of metabolic enzymes — much like a modern just-in-time factory — or smart therapeutic cells that are programmed to detect very specific cancer-associated signals before launching a cytotoxic program.

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