MIT Researchers Program Bacteria For Gut Biosensors

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Genetically engineered bacteria could help detect and treat digestive-system diseases, said MIT

Researchers at MIT say they have produced genetically modified bacteria that could be used to help detect and treat diseases such as colon cancer or immune-system disorders.

In a paper published in the journal Cell Systems, researchers said they have developed sensing and memory techniques that can be encoded in Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, one of the most commonly found bacteria  in the human gut.

Disease detection

cloudThese elements could allow the bacteria to sense, remember and respond to conditions in the digestive system, MIT said. The techniques have been tested on mice and in the future could help detect conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer in humans, MIT said.

The techniques were previously applied to organisms such as E. coli, but this is the first time they have been made use of with Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, which is much more common in the gut, MIT said.

The bacteria can be made to respond to conditions such as what the user eats, according to Timothy Lu, an MIT associate professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science, and Christopher Voigt, a professor of biological engineering, who led the research.

Future research

The scientists said they plan to expand their toolkit to be used with a wider range of gut bacteria, and said similar biosensors could also be used to detect disease elsewhere in the body.

They said that with further refinements, other diagnostic and therapeutic uses could be developed.

“For example, we want to have high sensitivity and specificity when diagnosing disease with engineered bacteria,” Lu said in a statement. “To achieve this, we could engineer bacteria to detect multiple biomarkers, and only trigger a response when they are all present.”

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