Combating Serious Illnesses With Bioengineered ‘Sonar’

Written by Benjamin Roussey

Medicine has reached a point where illness fighting microbes can be delivered deep into our bodies to fight the condition and inflammation caused by it. However, where do these microbe-sized warriors go? No one knows. There has been no way of finding out what these micro-agents are doing inside the body or how they are doing it. Until now!

Illumination with Sonar

A research team at the California Institute of Technology published a paper that tackled the lack of images and data in this situation. The experts regenerated the two most common bacteria – E. Coli and Salmonella, and integrated them with nano-sections of gas that act like sound waves underwater and produce ultrasound signals.

When placed inside a living being, these bacteria can be detected by ultrasound and reveal the precise location of microbes, just like sonar bouncing off underwater objects, explains Mikhail Shapiro, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Caltech.

According to Shapiro, there are many examples of genetically modifying a cell to go inside the body and treat the problem. Many companies are now receiving backing from investors to work on reprogrammed bacteria that can be used to detect gut inflammation or a tumor.

Mapping the Microbes

Nobody thought that these microbes could be mapped until the ultrasound, tissue-imaging method, was repurposed for this reason. Though no one thought The Force Awakens and Meet the Parents II were going to be that awful either. You never know how things are going to turn out!

So far, researchers monitored illness-fighting bacteria in the body by reprogramming them to glow in UV images. However, sometimes when microbes are buried deep inside the tissue, they are either blurry or not visible at all. Ultrasound makes it possible to precisely see these microbes as far as a hundred micrometers.

Shapiro and his research team members injected genetically re-engineered bacteria into the belly of mice. The results were far more specific, as compared to glowing bacteria that could only be located in the mouse’s stomach. Ultrasound picked up the precise location of gas-filled pouches in the mouse’s colon.

The researchers used the same experiment to map Salmonella bacteria that could be helpful in delivering cancer-fighting drugs directly to the infected tumor cells. This method can also be used to diagnose other illnesses in a non-invasive way.

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