Let the Engineers Have At the Biotechnology

Engineering is all about the rapid determination of effective uses for every new piece of information about the way in which the world works. Explore, test, combine, invent, improve, repeat - there's no need to protest the fact that understanding why often follows the demonstration that we can. Bridges and monuments were built well before the formalism of physics, materials science and architecture; the how was common practice long before the why. Humans excel at operating in an environment of less than perfect understanding, deciphering complex and poorly understood systems - and a good thing too.

In this era of biotechnology, the eager engineering mindset is turned towards genes, cells and biochemistry. If there's one thing better than engineering, it's engineering during the exploration of an enormously intricate system. Each new fact carved out from the unknown by researchers is a puzzle piece to be set with all the others, turned about and around, compared for new and interesting fits. The medical engineers take those pieces and gleefully work to build wonderful, effective new medical technologies.

An example of the sort of inventive progress presently taking place can be found in a recent press release from the cancer research community:

Most chemotherapy drugs affect both normal and cancerous tissue, which is why they also are toxic to naturally fast-growing cells in the body such as hair follicles and intestinal cells. Aboody and her colleagues have developed a two-part system to infiltrate metastatic tumor sites, and then activate a chemotherapeutic drug, thereby localizing the drug's effects to the tumor cells.

The technique takes advantage of the tendency for invasive tumors to attract neural stem cells. The researchers injected modified neural stem/progenitor cells into immunosuppressed mice that had been given neuroblastoma cells, which then formed tumors. After waiting a few days to allow the stem cells to migrate to the tumors, researchers administered a precursor-drug. When it reached the stem cells, the drug interacted with an enzyme the stem cells expressed, and was converted into an active drug that kills surrounding tumor cells. The precursor-drugs were administered for two weeks, then after a two-week break, a second round of stem/progenitor cells and drugs were administered.

One hundred percent of the neuroblastoma mice appeared healthy and tumor-free at six months. Without treatment, all the neuroblastoma mice died within two-and-a-half months.

Daunting cancerous death sentence? That's not a real showstopper - scientist-engineers will just take these here puzzle pieces and turn them into a therapy that uses existing cellular behavior and biochemical processes to do all the hard work. We don't fully understand those processes, but that's not the point; buildings were built - and built well - prior to Newton's contributions to science. This is engineering: taking the scraps of proven knowledge and putting them to good use.

It is this sort of workflow with an attitude that will get us to an era of far longer, healthier lives, one inventively solved problem at a time. In the modern age of biotechnology, medicine is engineering; that means look out below and mind the dust - big things ahead.

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