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Synthetic Treatment

Work into using synthetic biology to treat human diseases is moving along quickly, according to the New York Times.

Researchers from Synlogic are testing a synthetic biology-based treatment for phenylketonuria, a metabolic disorder marked by the inability to break down phenylalanine, it adds. The buildup of phenylalanine can damage neurons and lead to intellectual disability, and it is most commonly treated now, the Times notes, by a strict low-protein diet.

Synlogic, which co-founded by MIT's James Collins, though, has engineered a strain of E. coli so that it carries a pump that pulls in phenylalanine and an enzyme to break it down, it says. They also altered the strain so that it only turns this machinery on in low-oxygen environments like the gut. As the Times reports, the researchers have tested this engineered treatment in a mouse model of PKU, where it appeared effective as well as in healthy monkeys, and, now, in healthy humans, which indicated people could tolerate the engineered bacteria.

"I'm amazed at how fast we got to where we are," Collins, who was not part of the PKU work, tells the Times. It adds that the next step is to test the treatment in people with PKU.