From Glucose Gauge to Chemo Checker with a Dash of Protein Engineering

Leveraging simple glucose monitoring technology, Rice University researchers open a new frontier in personalized and efficient point-of-care therapeutics
Health & Medicine
March 19, 2024

In an era where personalized medicine is more than a buzzword, a team of synthetic biologists at Rice University, led by Caroline Ajo-Franklin, is pushing boundaries by transforming how we monitor and dose drugs. In a recent breakthrough published in Nature Communications, they have re-engineered a mundane glucose monitoring device into a versatile tool for drug detection.

A prototype electronic sensor that emits current when it detects the anticancer drug afimoxifene. Rice University synthetic biologists created the device to demonstrate a new method that could slash the costs of creating wearable monitors for precision, automated drug dosing of chemotherapies and other drugs. [Jeff Fitlow/Rice University]

Rong Cai, a postdoctoral research associate and the study's lead author, delved deep into the core of this technology. After testing over 400 modified versions of a key protein, the team struck gold with a variant that interacted with afimoxifene, a critical drug used in cancer treatment. Cai's relentless pursuit of precision led to a discovery that holds the potential to revolutionize medical treatment: “The glucometer is the part that’s so well-developed. While our target is different, it’s just a matter of engineering and changing the protein on the inside. On the outside, everything will still be the same. You can still do the test with a strip or on your arm.”

What's truly groundbreaking about their approach is the sheer simplicity and universality of it. By leveraging a technology that's already widespread and affordable, Ajo-Franklin's team is democratizing medical care. In her own words, Ajo-Franklin describes their ambition: “The dream is to have technology similar to what’s available today for monitoring and treating variations in blood glucose and have that be true for basically any drug. Millions of people use blood-glucose monitors every day. If we can use that same basic technology to monitor other drugs and biomarkers, we could move away from the one-size-fits-all dosing regimes that we’re stuck with today.”

The technical wizardry lies in the biochemical reaction where proteins bind to glucose, creating a detectable electrical current. By fine-tuning this reaction to respond to afimoxifene instead, the team has opened the door to new possibilities in drug monitoring.

To showcase this technology, Ajo-Franklin’s team collaborated with Rice engineer and materials scientist Rafael Verduzco to develop an afimoxifene sensor. This collaboration highlights the interdisciplinary nature of modern scientific research, where biology melds with engineering to create innovative solutions.

Ajo-Franklin is already looking ahead, seeking ways to enhance the sensitivity of these glucose-based drug tests and to identify proteins capable of detecting other drugs. This indicates a future where the technology could be adapted to a wide range of medications, making personalized drug monitoring a reality.

The implications of this research are vast. Not only does it hold the promise of more effective and personalized drug treatments, but it also represents a significant step forward in the integration of technology and biology. As Cai notes, the real charm is in the technology’s adaptability: “If your signal is electrical, you can read it in your phone, store its data in your phone, send it to the cloud, whatever. That’s the part, that marriage between electricity and biology, that is very attractive.”

In essence, the work of Ajo-Franklin’s team at Rice University isn't just about a scientific discovery. It's about reimagining the landscape of medical treatment, where a simple, everyday device can become a personal health monitor, catering to the unique needs of each individual.

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