Scientists try to build a better chromosome
March 11, 1999
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (CNN) -- A group of Canadian researchers is mass producing a man-made version of one of the building blocks of all life. They hope their creations -- called artificial chromosomes -- will open the door to advances in genetic engineering.
Artificial chromosomes are the life work of Dr. Gyula Hadlaczky of Hungary. His research is funded by Chromos Molecular Systems, the only company that is currently mass-producing the chromosomes
Their approach is to tweak a normal chromosome, which carries the genetic blueprint of a cell. They call the result an artificial chromosome -- even though it is created through natural processes -- because it is unlike the other chromosomes in a cell.
Hadlaczky and the scientists at Chromos expect the modified chromosomes to have applications in biotechnology and genetic engineering by providing an easier way to deliver DNA into the nucleus of a cell.
Current methods of gene therapy are difficult and are limited in the size of genes they can carry.
But the day such engineered material can be used to correct inherited diseases in humans might be a long way off.
A more short-term application might be to alter mammal cells so they become natural drug factories that produce biopharmaceuticals, such as vaccines.
"I think the biggest difference between what we have and others is that our chromosome is a little larger, has more payload capacity, and it's also easier to manipulate," says Jan Drayer of Chromos.
A larger payload means they can deliver more DNA into a cell -- and that means the cell could be programmed to manufacture complex drugs that can't be mass produced with today's technology.
So far, the researchers have passed two hurdles. They've demonstrated that cells will accept the new chromosomes, and they've determined that the chromosomes are copied and passed on, in cell division, to new cells.
Now the mass-produced artificial chromosomes are being shipped off for the next series of tests. Scientists in other labs will find out if the cells containing the new chromosome will produce the drugs they are supposed to.
Critics of genetic engineering fear the technology will create mutations that could lead to weakened plant or animal life.
But Hadlaczky and his Canadian colleagues are optimistic. They say their artificial chromosomes do no damage to the cells, and they believe they are well on the way to providing an important addition to the tools of genetic engineering.
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