Downloading the Latest App Straight Into Your Body

Emerging cell therapies could treat cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and more. As one biomedical engineer puts it: "the sky's the limit".

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Many people think of cells as the fundamental building blocks of life. These microscopic units are the foundation of every tissue and organ in our bodies. But inside each of these units is an incredible wealth of molecular machinery, and that presents opportunities for health and medicine.

“We like to think of cells as fundamentally programmable units of life, so much like you would program a computer writing computer code, we write DNA code and upload that into cells. And hopefully that will lead to better health products and therapies for patients all over the world,” says Nika Shakiba, assistant professor at the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering.

As a biomedical engineer, Shakiba is always looking for ways to translate knowledge into real-world applications, and her team is motivated to program cells for regenerative medicine. Cell therapies like the ones she is working on could restore lost function to treat conditions like diabetes or spinal cord injury.

“Having these kind of on-demand, off-the-shelf cell therapies or tissue products that we can, you know, pick and choose for the application of that patient kind of circumvents the need for waiting for transplant donors, and that’s oftentimes a big bottleneck,” says Shakiba.

The cells behind these therapies could be pre-programmed for a variety of roles, delivering the functions that the body needs.

“I think where we’re going is that we’re going to be in a place where cells are kind of like our smartphones: you can upload these apps, new functions to cells, and then put them in the body, and they’ll do kind of remarkable things that we couldn’t imagine,” adds Shakiba.

“A really cool example of that right now is CAR T-cell therapies, which are these kind of immune cells that have been engineered to recognize cancer. You put them in the body, they’ll go out there and their mission is to find the cancer cell, get rid of it. So the sky’s the limit for the kind of like apps or modules we can upload into cells, and I think that’s where we’re going in the next 10, 15 years.”

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Nika Shakiba is an Assistant Professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering (SBME) at the University of British Columbia. Her research program is interested in understanding the social lives of stem cells. Her lab applies a combined systems and synthetic biology approach to reverse- and forward-engineer the competitive interactions between cells in developmental systems.

Prior to joining SBME, Shakiba was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and completed her PhD in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at University of Toronto.

Shakiba is a big believer in outreach and mentorship. Beyond her research and teaching, she is passionate about providing equity in mentorship & advice access through her latest project, Advice to a Scientist.

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.