Opinion: molecular computers may prove useful for the early diagnosis of cardiovascular diseases

We rely on computers in almost every aspect of life, from the ones that help us discover the secrets of the universe at CERN to the ones in our cars that help us get to our in-laws for the first time. Over the past few decades, computers have evolved from room-sized machines to small devices we carry in our pockets.

But what if I told you that we will soon be able to go even smaller? What if I told you that we can make molecules act like circuits and perform logic operations? Molecular computers already exist. While we can't yet use them to play video games, they may prove useful for the treatment and diagnosis of some diseases.

No matter where people live, and regardless of whether a deadly virus is in circulation at the time, maintaining our health is of utmost importance. However, it's not an easy task and balance seems to be the keyword here. We have to eat a balanced diet, balance our work and private lives and balance sport and rest. What a challenge!

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From RTÉ News, report on a 2015 campaign highlighting dangers of heart disease among Irish women

And how about the consequences of breaking the commandments of a healthy and balanced life? Dry skin and dark circles under the eyes? Well maybe, but also cardiovascular diseases. According to the World Health Organisation, 18 million deaths are caused annually by those diseases worldwide, a figure which is far from insignificant.

A major obstacle to the successful management of cardiovascular diseases is the diagnosis. Typically, the condition is only diagnosed once the patient has already reached an advanced state and is experiencing severe symptoms. As you probably already know, a successful treatment starts with a timely diagnosis, and sometimes an accurate diagnosis is more valuable than an effective medicine.

Current diagnosis for cardiovascular diseases includes blood tests, echocardiography, Carotid Duplex Ultrasound and Electron-Beam Computed Tomography. Most of these techniques study the circulatory system in general or only the heart. However, a closer look would likely enable us to predict certain conditions much earlier. And this is where molecular computers can help diagnose these diseases at a cellular level.

You might be relieved to know that no one is going to implant 5G microchips under your skin

Let me answer two of the most frequent questions we get when we discuss this topic: why do we call them molecular computers? And how do they work? You might be relieved to know that no one is going to implant 5G microchips under your skin - at least not us. Researchers have noticed that the health of the veins and arteries is closely related to the health of the circulatory system, which therefore affects our overall health. That seems obvious, right? The stronger the brick, the stronger the house.

There are some major challenges when it comes to cellular diagnosis. Observing a cell under a microscope is like looking down from the top of a skyscraper: the view is awesome, but details are lost. Let's imagine that you are up there, 200 metres above ground, and your task is to determine the mood of the people below just by looking at them. Are they happy? Sad? Hungry? It sounds complicated, right?

We are faced with those same challenges in the lab. Both healthy and the unhealthy ones look similar when we observe them, so we must develop ways to differentiate them. A very common way to accomplish this is to add a dye to some of our cells so they're blue if alive and healthy and red if not. Imagine if the happy people you see from the top of the skyscraper are wearing blue hats and the unhappy ones are wearing red ones. The dye will be a sort of molecular sensor.

Ultimately, we will have valuable information about the health of the cells

So, what if we want to know more about the cells simultaneously? Well, just add more of those "intelligent" colour-changing dyes and see what happens, right? It's not that simple. First, we have to be sure the sensor is not affecting the normal cell functions and we have a potential solution for that. We're encapsulating some dyes in a microscopic capsule that we'll later administer to a cell. While one sensor may indicate that the cell is "happy," another could indicate that it is "hungry" or "sad." The process will be based on the same logic that computers use - "if", "and", "or". Ultimately, we will have valuable information about the health of the cells.

Second, we have to be sure that our sensor is very specific, we don’t want it to confuse a "hungry" cell with a "sad cell". For that, we are starting by testing our sensors not in cells but in artificial models so we can safely evaluate all their characteristics.

Living is not easy but we have a powerful tool to help us: research. Research has enabled us to fight infections, extend and improve our lives, develop highly effective vaccines, and is now helping us understand our bodies one cell at a time.

The author's research project receives funding from the European Commission grant No. No 813920.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ