By Matt Kelly
Small Times Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 16, 2002 — Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they have developed a way to “speak” to DNA molecules with radio waves, a possible precursor to new ways of building nanoscale machines.

Reported in the Jan. 10 issue of the journal Nature, scientists at the MIT Media Lab and the Center for Biomedical Engineering managed to attach a tiny radio antenna to DNA. When a radio-frequency magnetic field is transmitted to the antenna, the DNA molecule is zapped with energy and responds.

The antenna is a cluster of metal, less than 100 atoms in size and about 1 nanometer long.

MIT licensed the technology last June to engeneOS, a company in nearby Waltham, Mass. Joseph Jacobson, one of the study’s main authors, is a founder of engeneOS; several other of the researchers work for the company in a variety of advisory roles.

EngeneOS (pronounced “ingenious”) said it is already in talks with drug-discovery companies and others about possible uses for the technology. The ultimate goal, the researchers say, is to instruct biological materials to do specific tasks. Such biological machines, theoretically, could perform computations, deliver drugs, diagnose illness or assemble computer components.

“Manipulation of DNA is interesting because it has been shown recently that it has potential as an actuator [a hard drive component] and can be used to perform computational operations,” said Jacobson, who is also an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab.

In their research work, Jacobson and his colleagues sent a radio signal to a piece of double-stranded DNA and got the two strands to unwind — a process called “dehybridization.” The switching is reversible, and did not affect neighboring molecules. While they honed the technique using DNA, it should also work on proteins, peptides and other large molecules.

Frank Lee, chief executive of engeneOS, said the technology looks promising in pharmaceuticals, molecular diagnostics and materials science. “This is a powerful platform technology with broad commercial applications,” he said. “We plan to … pursue both near-term and longer-term opportunities.”

At the moment, the 20-person company is geared more for scouting out biotech opportunities. Its executive team largely hails from pharmaceutical, genomics or bioengineering backgrounds; Lee was previously chief technology officer at Millennium Pharmaceuticals and managed the company’s genomics research. The name itself stands for “engineered genomic operating systems.”

Anjan Mehta, chief business officer, said commercial uses for the technology could be achieved in two or three years, depending on how complicated the goals of drug companies are.

“It’s beyond proof-of-concept,” Mehta said. “It’s not many years away. It’s near-term.”

For example, Mehta said, a pharmaceutical company might use the technology for drug delivery; a doctor could inject drug molecules into a sore joint and then activate them by radio signal. “Zap it, and you can control it as much as you want,” he said.

Mehta said engeneOS hopes to announce licensing deals with drug companies this year.

EngeneOS was formed in October 2000. It secured a $6.8 million round of venture capital last year, and Mehta said the company is trying to raise a second round of funding now. He declined to say how much the company is seeking or how close it is to announcing a deal.

Related Stories:
DARPA and Agilent invest $6.1M to make DNA synthesis cheaper
DNA computer’s creator says future of the technology is inside the body


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