Ask a scientist: how can DNA be modified to tackle cancer?

Interview with A*STAR’s Principal Research Scientist.

Scientists have found a way to more accurately detect and help treat cancer and infectious diseases. Researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) are trialling modified DNA molecules, called aptamers, to identify and destroy specific viruses, bacteria, cells and proteins. These aptamers are 100 times better than existing DNA treatments being used against diseases, Dr Ichiro Hirao, Principal Research Scientist at A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology told GovInsider. A human DNA is made up of four parts, which Dr Hirao modified by adding a fifth part. This extra support allows the modified DNA molecules to latch tightly onto the targeted disease cells to coat them and prevent them from spreading. They then neutralise the cells. Dr Hirao also adapted the DNA to make sure it can lasts long enough to tackle the disease. “Usually DNAs are digested within one hour in blood at body temperature. Our DNA aptamers can survive for days instead of hours. This is important for pharmaceutical applications, which require the therapeutic to remain in the body for a longer period”, he said. The modified DNA is more accurate than traditional medicines, he said, which sometimes cause side-effects because our bodies treat them as foreign particles, activating the immune system. New drugs manufactured with our own DNA would not cause such problems. These drugs could also be cheaper than traditional drugs. While drugs are difficult to mass produce at a high quality, aptamers are easier to produce because they can be chemically created in a test tube. Dr Hirao has created modified DNA to trial targeting cancerous cells, and next he will test the aptamers on dengue fever and malaria. Since the aptamers are highly accurate, they could also be used to detect specific strains of dengue through a blood test, Dr Hirao believes.