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Surprising Science

Scientists Crack the Code to Protein Self-Assembly

New findings out of Duke University will allow medical researchers to act like computer programmers except with genetic code rather than digital.

If news stories pertaining to pharmaceutical drugs have got you down, here’s something to perk you up: Duke University scientists have successfully hacked the genetic code controlling how and when proteins self-assemble and disassemble. It’s a huge step forward for designer proteins, synthetic biology, and a whole host of other future-minded pieces of medical research. Perhaps most importantly, these findings may result in new and effective ways to deliver drugs to vital areas within the body.

It’s now possible for medical researchers to emulate computer programmers in construction, manipulation, and execution of code — except in this case, we’re talking genetic coding rather than digital.

The researchers’ study, which appears in this month’s Nature, details the many possible environmental stimuli that result in protein assembly and disassembly, and then demonstrates that the researchers have learned to replicate them in a lab. For example, the researchers have pinned down the complex relationship between protein structures and heat.

If you wrap medicine in a protein shell and heat it just right, you can control when and where in the body that shell will give way and the medicine will be delivered. The shell become more than just a shell; it becomes a “bioactive component” of the drug, according to Ashutosh Chilkoti, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Duke.

In what other ways can we expect human health research to take big steps forward? Dr. Francois Nader on what the amazing things the future brings:


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