Tal Danino

Produced with  Cool Hunting

Tal Danino is featured in Cool Hunting 25, a showcase, presented in partnership with Cadillac, of 25 creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Programming bacteria to sniff out and treat cancer may sound like something out of science fiction, or at least the future, but it’s exactly what Tal Danino is doing right now. A bioengineer, TED Fellow, and postdoctoral fellow at MIT, Danino specializes in manipulating the DNA of probiotics to turn them into a diagnostic and treatment tool. “What we can do inside the lab is use machines that print different DNA sequences,” he tells CH. “Each of those sequences encodes for a certain function of the bacteria. So we’re programming many genes that interact with one another and have a functional behavior.”

“[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms. ”

Here, that behavior is diagnosing liver cancer. Probiotic bacteria are introduced orally, and if they encounter tumors, release an enzyme that turns the urine purple. It’s an easy detection method for a notoriously difficult-to-spot disease. But the implications don’t stop at diagnosis. “Imagine if the bacteria, instead of producing the enzyme that can change the color of your urine, made other enzymes and other small molecules that are known to kill cancer cells,” he says.

 

Danino is on the leading edge of the application-based approach to programming life. “This stuff is very new,” he notes. “People are just learning how to program these organisms.” He likens the current climate to the dawn of modern computing. The cost of writing and reading DNA has dropped drastically in the last decade. And as costs drop, innovation explodes. “It’s the most exciting time,” he says, “because we’re right at the point where we’re exponentially increasing what we can do.”

Looking forward, Danino hopes to explore treatments for other cancers and, eventually, bring the fruits of his research to the public. His lab is currently seeking funding, thanks to the incredibly high cost and long timeline—“it’s typically 10 years and a billion dollars”—of taking a drug to market. Despite any potential hardships down the road, Danino remains optimistic. The way he sees it, the future is ours to write. “It’s an open question: What should we program? There are so many things that open up.”

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