An international team of researchers led by scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, United States, and the University of Rome Tor Vergata. Italy, has developed sensors made from custom DNA molecules that could be used to personalize cancer treatments and monitor the quality of stem cells. The new nanosensors can detect a broad class of proteins called transcription factors, which serve as master control switches of life. According to Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, a postdoctoral researcher in UCSB’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who led the study, “The fate of our cells is controlled by thousands of different proteins, called transcription factors. The role of these proteins is to read the genome and translate it into instructions for the synthesis of the various molecules that compose and control the cell. Transcription factors act a little bit like the ‘settings’ of our cells, just like the settings on our phones or computers. What our sensors do is read those settings.” The sensors could be used to make sure stem cells have been reprogrammed properly, or to determine which transcription factors are activated or repressed in a patient’s cancer cells, allowing physicians to use the right combination of drugs for each patient. While many labs have invented ways to read transcription factors, the new approach is very quick and convenient. Andrew Bonham, a postdoctoral scholar at UCSB and co-first author of the study, said, “In most labs, researchers spend hours extracting the proteins from cells before analyzing them. With the new sensors, we just mash the cells up, put the sensors in, and measure the level of fluorescence of the sample.”

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