The delivery technology (liposomes) that has been used in the creation of the new mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 could now be used to create microscopic “biological computers” that monitor the body from the inside out.

New research into the technology comes out of the University of New South Wales, Australia. While it is likely to be heralded by some, to others it will seem a potentially frightening development, with implications for personal privacy and autonomy.

Synthetic liposomes

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The method of delivery involved in the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 makes use of liposomes

Synthetic liposomes are basically small bubbles and they have been used for some time to deliver drugs for conditions like cancer and other diseases. In order to deliver their “payload” these liposomes must communicate with cell membranes in order to pass through.

Membranes are essential to the communication between cells and help ensure that the right things go to the right places, either within the cells they are produced in or outside them.

The scientists at the University of New South Wales used DNA “nanostructures” to manipulate synthetic liposomes in ways that make it easier for them to pass through membranes and deliver their freight.

By modifying the shape, porosity and reactivity of liposomes, new application could include building small molecular systems that sense their environment and respond to a signal to release a cargo, such as a drug molecule when it nears its target.

Lead author Dr Matt Baker from UNSW’s School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences says the study discovered how to build “little blocks” out of DNA and then formulated how best to label these blocks with cholesterol to get them to stick to lipids, the main constituents of plant and animal cells.

“One major application of our study is biosensing: you could stick some droplets in a person or patient, as it moves through the body it records local environment, processes this and delivers a result so you can ‘read out’, the local environment,” Dr Baker says.

Liposome nanotechnology has been brought to global prominence by the use of liposomes in the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19.

Previously scientists struggled to find the right conditions to make sure that the DNA ‘computers’ would actually stick to liposomes. They also had difficulties finding the best way to coat the DNA with cholesterols so that it would not only go to the right membrane but stay there as long as was needed.

“Is it better at the edge? The centre? Heaps of them? Few of them? Close as possible to structure, or far as possible?,” asks Dr Baker.

“We looked at all these things and showed that we could make good conditions for DNA structures to bind to liposomes reliably and ‘do something’.

“Here we have built totally new DNA nanotechnology where we can punch holes in membranes, on demand, to be able to pass important signals across a membrane.”

New biosensing and drug-delivery tech: scientific dream or social nightmare?

neural interface
A lab rat that can be controlled remotely with a neural interface

Although this research will of course be heralded as yet another milestone in the onward march of scientific progress, some are likely to be disquieted by the suggestion that microscopic “biological computers” could soon be swarming around your body, monitoring your vital processes and delivering drugs without any input from yourself.

Recently we reported on a new neural interface designed by scientists in Korea that can deliver drugs to the brain remotely. Researchers at the University of Dresden are also pioneering implantable tech that monitors your body in real time and could be used to send signals to doctors if abnormal activity is detected; for example, if a heart murmur is evident.

With each passing week, questions about what it means to be an autonomous human – questions that were once restricted to science-fictions writers – are being realised as imminent concerns for all of us. Will this technology be used solely for good; or will its potential for social control also be used?

Only time will tell.

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