• Cancer-fighting molecules designed with drag-and-drop software.

    Credit: Courtesy of Parabon NanoLabs

    Cancer-fighting molecules designed with drag-and-drop software.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about material architecture and the technological capacity to design and manipulate the construction of materials themselves. Recently, a laboratory has demonstrated the potential to design diease-fighting DNA using special software that allows "drag-and-drop" functionality.

The Reston, Va.–based Parabon NanoLabs developed its unconventional approach while formulating a drug to fight gliobastoma multiforme, a deadly brain cancer. The lab researchers created what they call the Parabon Essemblix Drug Development Platform, which unites a molecular CAD application called inSçquio with nanoscale manufacturing (yes, it's an astonishingly similar process to architectural design and construction—just at the molecular scale).

"We can now 'print,' molecule by molecule, exactly the compound that we want," said principal investigator Steven Armentrout in a National Science Foundation press release. "What differentiates our nanotechnology from others is our ability to rapidly, and precisely, specify the placement of every atom in a compound that we design."

The approach allows scientists to engineer new genetic compounds much more quickly than traditional approaches—in weeks or even days—by harnessing a cloud-computing database that optimizes for biological functionality. "Currently, most drugs are developed using a screening technique where you try a lot of candidate compounds against targets to 'see what sticks'," Armentrout said. "Instead, we're designing very specific drugs based on their molecular structure, with target molecules that bind to receptors on specific types of cancer cells. In plug-and-play fashion, we can swap in or swap out any of the functional components, as needed, for a range of treatment approaches."

Based on the success of their research, the scientists are not only applying their new methodology to combat other diseases, but also to improve computing and sensor technologies at the nanoscale. 

Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.