Probiotics might facilitate disease diagnosis!
Another fascinating article, via my favorite science blog io9.com, detailing some work by college students at the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The iGEM competition is an meeting of interdisciplinary teams that use an approach called “synthetic biology” to solve problems. Students develop a strategy using genetically modified E. coli cells to solve a problem of their own choosing.
For the Echromi group, a team from the University of Cambridge decided to see if modified organisms might be useful to help diagnose disease, in a manner sort of analogous to the cancer diagnosis approach I summarized here recently using genetically modified E. coli cells. The Echromi group began with a premise: different disease conditions in the body (different kinds of infection, inflammatory disease, cancers) results in alterations in metabolism, and lead to enzymes and proteins that might be made by an infectious agent or an abnormal cell population in the body. Designer bacterial strains could then detect these novel enzymes and proteins and react to their presence.
A patient then would ingest a mixture of different modified “detector” bacteria. If the patient has an infection with a certain kind of pathogen, that pathogen could be recognized by the presence of enzymes specific to it. The specific ingested “detector” bacteria then would grow better relative to the other “detector” bacteria. The presence of enriched “detector” bacteria, indicating that a specific pathogen or condition is present would be assessed by examining the color of the patient’s feces.
Diagnosis of a number of disease conditions then becomes as simple as drinking a probiotic shake of genetically modified organisms, and waiting a couple of hours for the shake to pass through the gastrointestinal tract. Different formulations of shakes could target possible forms of cancers, viral infections, or bacterial infections, and could be discretely done in the patient’s own home. For certain forms of gastroenteritis, a second probiotic shake could well be the cure!