Cancer-Hunting mRNA Treatment Undergoes Testing

Scientists at Strand have developed a groundbreaking approach to keep the inflammatory protein IL-12 inside tumors, using a genetic circuit that activates the production of the protein only in the tumor microenvironment. This innovative method aims to address the challenges of precision and safety in cancer therapy.

The Development of the Genetic Circuit

Strand’s genetic circuit is designed to detect specific microRNA levels, which vary between cancer cells and healthy cells. This enables the circuit to instruct the mRNA to produce the inflammatory protein exclusively within the tumor microenvironment. Moreover, the genetic circuit includes a mechanism for the mRNA to self-destruct if it moves away from its intended target, ensuring precision in its action.

According to Becraft, a member of the research team at Strand, the mRNA has been engineered to deactivate if it strays from the designated area.

Targeted Tumor Types and Trial Approach

Initially, Strand is focusing on easily accessible tumors such as melanoma and breast cancer to demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of their approach. The initial trial involves the direct injection of the mRNA into the tumors, allowing doctors to assess the localized impact of the treatment. Looking ahead, the company envisions expanding the use of their programmed mRNA to treat tumors in more remote locations through body-wide infusions, with the aim of selectively activating the therapy in specific cells and tissues.

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Philip Santangelo, a researcher at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University specializing in mRNA, acknowledges the benefits of Strand’s programmable approach, even when administered directly at the tumor site. He notes that if the drug spreads outside the tumor upon injection, its effect is likely to be confined to the tumor, highlighting the precision of the treatment.

Monitoring and Safety Measures

Researchers will be able to measure IL-12 levels in the blood, allowing them to verify the absence of the protein in circulation. Additionally, Strand plans to monitor various organs to track the presence of the protein and ensure that it remains localized within the tumor. This meticulous approach is essential to confirming the efficacy and safety of the therapy.

Ron Weiss, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and a co-founder of Strand, emphasizes the importance of minimizing mistakes in genetic circuits. He highlights the need for a high level of accuracy, stating that even a small margin of error can be detrimental to the therapy’s effectiveness.

Future Prospects and Potential Impact

Weiss envisions a future where genetic circuits can be used to program increasingly sophisticated actions, creating highly precise therapies. He believes that this approach has the potential to match the complexity of biology, leading to the development of therapies with unparalleled sophistication.

The pioneering work in genetic circuits, initially based on DNA, has steadily progressed to include mRNA, reflecting the evolving appreciation of mRNA’s potential in the scientific community. This transition exemplifies the continuous advancements in biomedical research and the pursuit of innovative therapeutic strategies.

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The Advantages and Challenges of Genetic Circuits

While genetic circuits hold immense promise, they also pose challenges. Like computer circuits, genetic circuits are susceptible to occasional errors. As such, the ongoing trial by Strand and other early attempts will provide critical insights into the efficacy and safety of genetic circuits in therapeutic applications.

The concept of genetic circuits has the potential to significantly impact the safety and efficacy of therapeutic interventions, according to Weiss. The continuous evolution and refinement of genetic circuits could revolutionize the landscape of precision medicine, paving the way for highly targeted and effective treatments.

Strand’s innovative approach underscores the growing intersection between biological engineering and clinical applications, where cutting-edge research translates into tangible therapeutic solutions. The integration of genetic circuits represents a significant breakthrough in the quest for precision and personalized medicine.


The development and application of genetic circuits, particularly in the context of cancer therapy, hold immense promise for the future of medicine. Strand’s pioneering work in engineering a genetic circuit to regulate the production of the inflammatory protein IL-12 within tumors underscores the unprecedented potential of this approach. As the trial progresses and additional research in genetic circuits unfolds, the medical community eagerly anticipates the transformative impact of this innovative technology on the field of precision medicine.