By reproducing in the laboratory the complex interactions that cause human genes to turn on inside cells, Duke University bioengineers have created a system they believe can benefit gene therapy research and the burgeoning field of synthetic biology. This new approach should help basic scientists as they tease out the effects of "turning on" or "turning off" many different genes, as well as clinicians seeking to develop new gene-based therapies for human disease. "We know that human genes are not just turned on or off, but can be activated to any level over a wide range. Current engineered systems use one protein to control the levels of gene activation," said Dr. Charles Gersbach, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering and member of Duke's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. "However, we know that natural human genes are regulated by interactions between dozens of proteins that lead to diverse outcomes within a living system. In contrast to typical genetics studies that dissect natural gene networks in a top-down fashion, we developed a bottom-up approach, which allows us to artificially simulate these natural complex interactions between many proteins that regulate a single gene," Dr. Gersbach said. "Additionally, this approach allowed us to turn on genes inside cells to levels that were not previously possible." The results of the Duke experiments, which were conducted by Dr. Pablo Perez-Pinera, a senior research scientist in Gersbach's laboratory, were published online on February 3, 2013 in the journal Nature Methods. Human cells have about 20,000 genes that produce a multitude of proteins, many of which affect the actions of other genes. Being able to understand these interactions would greatly improve the ability of scientists in all areas of biomedical research.
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