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Programmable medicine is the goal for new bio-circuitry research

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Programmable medicine is the goal for new bio-circuitry research
Researchers Holt and Kwong. Credit: Georgia Tech Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology

In the world of synthetic biology, the development of foundational components like logic gates and genetic clocks has enabled the design of circuits with increasing complexity, including the ability to solve math problems, build autonomous robots, and play interactive games. A team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology is now using what they’ve learned about bio-circuits to lay the groundwork for the future of programmable medicine.


Looking like any other small vial of clear liquid, these programmable drugs would communicate directly with our biological systems, dynamically responding to the information flowing through our bodies to automatically deliver proper doses where and when they are needed. These future medicines might even live inside us throughout our lives, fighting infection, detecting cancer and other diseases, essentially becoming a therapeutic biological extension of ourselves.

We are years away from that, but the insights gained from research in Gabe Kwong’s lab are moving us closer with the development of “enzyme computers”—engineered bio-circuits designed with biological components, with the capacity to expand and augment living functions.

“The long-term vision is this concept of programmable immunity,” said Kwong, associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, who partnered with fellow researcher Brandon Holt on the paper, “Protease circuits for processing biological information,” published Oct. 6 in the journal Nature Communications. The research was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Programmable medicine is the goal for new bio-circuitry research
Analog-to-digital converter. Credit: Georgia Tech Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology

The story of this paper begins two years ago when, Holt said, “our lab has a rich history of developing enzyme-based diagnostics; eventually we started thinking about these systems as computers, which led us to design simple logic gates, such as AND

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The best medicine for a COVID-19 economy? More education and training

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Reading the tea leaves of a U.S. economy reshaped by COVID-19 has sent economic analysts and prognosticators into overdrive. Many see a move away from big cities and into simpler, socially distanced life in small towns. If this happens at scale, it could be a boon to heretofore “left-behind” places in the Midwest and other regions.

Others predict significant drops in demand for jobs with low education and training requirements, driven by automation and the growth of technology needed to operate socially distanced offices, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and even restaurants. A recently released analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia lends support to this idea.

Policymakers can adopt policies to help improve wages and opportunities in jobs with fewer credentialing requirements, for example by helping smaller manufacturers and boosting the minimum wage. But policy also needs to directly address the need for more workers with higher skills due both to the pandemic and longer-run economic trends. In many of the new and growing jobs, these higher skill requirements can best be met by providing workers with more extensive and affordable post-secondary opportunities.

As one of us argued earlier this year in the New York Times, some industries will benefit from the COVID-19-related economic crisis, but those most likely to do so – in fields such as health care, medical devices and communications – require workers with associate degrees or short-term certifications of the sort available at community colleges. A society that moves fast to retrain its work force for these new opportunities will recover more quickly than one that does not.

Deep recessions like the one we are currently in accelerate existing trends towards automation and change the skills demanded by employers. Again, this poses a particular challenge for manufacturing-reliant regions that have been hard-hit by the coronavirus and