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The Helios Gene Gun: healer or killer?

The helios gene gun is in my opinion the coolest research tool currently available. I hate to be a stereotype, ‘wow, an American saying a gun is cool,’ but there are three reasons why this gun is cool; 1. It was invented by a company called ‘BioRad,’ if it was ever in a name, well, it just was. 2. Bling, this gun uses gold particles. 3. Unlike regular guns, it’s used to heal, not to kill. Well, sort of…

The helios gene gun uses helium and gold to deliver what is known as ‘particle bombardment,’ the transfer of foreign nucleic acids into cells. The nucleic acids, such as RNA or DNA, are coated onto the gold particles, which are then fired into cells. If the cells are not damaged by the procedure, they will be’ transformed’ (genetically altered). This technique was first applied in plant cells in order to speed the process of selecting larger, more fruitful, and resistant variants. Soon after, the gun was applied to cell cultures and experimental animals for medical research.

The gene gun can be experimentally used to deliver gene therapy and/or vaccines. This vaccination technique termed ‘DNA vaccination,’ involves the insertion of a bacterial or viral gene, normally encoding a surface protein of the pathogen, into the host cell, which may then express the pathogenic protein triggering an immune response. The immune response generates a ‘memory’ which would prove useful if the real pathogen is encountered and will aid the host’s ability to fight off infection. The level of response has varied among experiments in mice and other animals, indicating that it may not be useful in all cases but has been proven to vaccinate mice against rabies.

Gene therapy, which aims to fight genetic disease, is another possible application of the gene gun. If a person is lacking, or carrying a dysfunctional copy of, a particular gene, disease may occur. Gene therapy involves supplying the person with a functional copy of the missing/dysfunctional gene in order to combat or cure the disease. Another form of gene therapy involves blocking the gene if it is producing unwanted products using a short interfering RNA (siRNA) which will bind to the DNA and prevent it from being used to create the unwanted products.

An experiment was performed on a human to combat genetic liver disease which was shown to successfully transform superficial liver cells (hepatocytes), which gives hope that the gene gun really can be used for gene therapy. There are a number of challenges and problems which may occur with this delivery technique that still need to be overcome.  Inserting DNA into a cell can cause potentially dangerous abnormalities which can lead to disease, making the entire process inimical. The guns depth penetration also poses treatment restriction as it only inserts to 0.1mm.  There is also an issue with the bling, it is cool, but in high levels it may cause toxicity, which once again outweighs the therapeutic benefit.

Another use can exploit the treatments potential lethality in order to fight cancer.Cancer cells grow out of control and the trouble is stopping them. The gene gun can be used to deliver ‘suicide genes’ to tumours, in the hope of killing the mutant cells, hence fighting the disease.

With all of the potential applications of the gene gun, it’s definitely a winning invention in my book. The only thing that bothers me about the gun is its appearance, which I wasn’t aware of until recently. Like lots of lab equipment it is grey.  In 2008, a new double barrel model was developed, so I’m hoping the next gene gun model will also be aesthetically altered to look something like this.

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