Computer code
Cells could be programmed using biological 'code' to treat certain diseases.iStock

Cells can be programmed like a computer to fight diseases such as cancer, influenza and other serious ailments in a breakthrough for synthetic biology – a scientific field which combines the disciplines of engineering and biology.

A team from the University of Warwick has shown that one of the fundamental molecules of life which is found in all plants and animals – RNA - can be re-engineered using gene editing, giving scientists the ability to program how the cell acts.

In addition to treating human illnesses, the new technique could be used, among other things, to edit plant cells making them more resistant to pests and diseases.

RNAs are essentially messenger molecules which carry biological information between proteins and DNA inside cells. The researchers have shown that the RNA can be produced and organised into customised sequences – akin to coded instructions for computers – which will give the cells instructions to carry out specific tasks.

Professor Alfonso Jaramillo, who led the research, argues that, much like a computer, cells can process and respond to instructions that are inputted into their main system.

This capacity means that many kinds of RNA sequences could be created to perform different types of action and tailored to address different problems – analogous to the way computer software, or phone apps, allow you to carry out a range of functions with the same device.

This would allow for the development of very personalised and efficient healthcare where we could 'download' a sequence of actions into cells with specific instructions to treat a certain disease.

"The cells could read the RNA 'software' to perform the encoded tasks, which could make the cells detect abnormal states, infections, or trigger developmental programs", Jaramillo said.

The team's findings were published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.