‘Smart cells’ show promise to treat disease

NIH funds Segatori lab’s development of synthetic circuits to sense trouble and respond

Laura Segatori

HOUSTON – (Aug. 16, 2021) – You very likely have apps on your cellphone. New research at Rice University offers the possibility of apps for your actual cells.

Rice bioengineer Laura Segatori and her Brown School of Engineering team have received a prestigious National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant to develop gene activity sensors and activators that, she said, hold unprecedented opportunities for treating diabetes, cancer, infectious diseases and genetic disorders.

Laura Segatori
Laura Segatori

The four-year, $1.8 million grant is administered by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. It follows a smaller National Science Foundation grant in January that suggested the Segatori lab’s strategy for engineering cellular devices can be applied to virtually any cellular process associated with a transcriptional response.

The idea is to program mammalian cells to read their environment and develop living designer systems that detect and correct human pathologies. While the concept isn’t new, Segatori’s approach, built on the back of a novel system introduced last year to improve detection of target gene expression, is unique.

“I’m not the only one in this space, but we expect our approach to change the way people think about engineering sensor-actuator devices,” she said. “Currently, these devices are mainly based on cell surface sensing capabilities mostly achieved by rewiring native ligand-receptor interactions or evolving new cell surface receptors. These are linked to signal transduction systems that allow cells to translate the extracellular stimulus into a detectable output or therapeutic program.”

Segatori’s synthetic biological circuits are engineered to function inside cells and quickly respond to changes in gene activity.

“We want to develop a novel class of cellular sensors,” she said. “These would actuate the desired biomolecular program in response to the detection of the device’s physiological state, achieved through real-time monitoring of the activity of chromosomal genes.

“For instance, we can imagine developing cellular devices that activate a therapeutic response upon detection of transcriptional signatures associated with the detection of markers of a tumor microenvironment.”

Segatori, an associate professor of bioengineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, and biosciences, said the circuit’s ability to rapidly turn itself off once the stimulus disappears is key. “Current engineered cells typically lack control over the response time and dynamics,” she said. “Drug dosage becomes an issue.

“But if we can make smart cells that sense the need of your body for therapeutics and just adjust drug release accordingly, that would be really useful for many applications.”


Read the project details at https://reporter.nih.gov/search/yQsTA37z-kCHJh8r0Y1usQ/project-details/10211197.

Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews.

Related materials:

Strong signals show how proteins come and go: http://news.rice.edu/2020/03/09/strong-signals-show-how-proteins-come-and-go-2/

Cell and Protein Engineering Laboratory (Segatori lab): http://segatori.blogs.rice.edu

George R. Brown School of Engineering: https://engineering.rice.edu

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CAPTION: Laura Segatori. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,978 undergraduates and 3,192 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 1 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.