Biocomputer Systems and Healthcare

Shepherdstown 15 November 2008Biocomputers utilize systems of biologically derived molecules, such as DNA and proteins, to perform computational calculations involving storing, retrieving, and processing data. Biomolecular computing has emerged as an interdisciplinary field that draws together molecular biology, chemistry, computer science and mathematics. This article is intended to provide health IT managers with a high level overview of this emerging technology.

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The development of biocomputers has been made possible by the expanding new science of nanobiotechnology. According to Wikipedia, the term nanobiotechnology can be defined in multiple ways; in a very general sense, nanobiotechnology can be defined as any type of technology that utilizes both nano-scale materials as well as biologically based materials.

The promising field of biomolecular computer research utilizes the science behind nano-sized biomaterials to create various forms of computational devices, which may have many potential applications in the future. Biocomputers utilizing nanobiotechnology may one day become the most energy-efficient, most powerful, and most economical of any commercially available computer.

Related Terms

Biomolecular computing has emerged as an interdisciplinary field that draws together chemistry, computer science, mathematics, molecular biology, and physics. Our knowledge of DNA nanotechnology and biomolecular computing increases dramatically with every passing year. The international meeting on DNA Computing has been a forum where scientists with different backgrounds, sharing a common interest in biomolecular computing, meet and present their latest results. - See http://nicosia.is.s.u-tokyo.ac.jp/dna/

DNA computing is a form of biocomputing which makes use of DeoxyriboNucleic Acid (DNA), biochemistry and molecular biology, instead of the traditional silicon-based computer technologies. DNA computing, or molecular computing, is a fast developing interdisciplinary area. This field was initially developed by Leonard Adleman of the University of Southern California. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA_computing and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biocomputers

Selected Examples of Biocomputer Advances Over Time

In June 1999, Business Week ran an article on "A New Breed of Thinking Computer". The article stated that William L. Ditto, a physicist at Georgia Institute of Technology, figured it was time to start building computers the way nature does. His research team and a handful of other groups, including one at the University of Bordeaux in France, envisioned hybrid biocomputers that mate living nerve cells, or neurons, with silicon circuits. Neurons are the body's wires - they transmit signals in the brain and throughout the nervous system. By putting neurons into semiconductor circuits, Ditto and his team at Georgia Tech believed they could create the basis for a new breed of "brain like" computer systems. They were able to score a first such breakthrough by doing simple arithmetic with two neurons. See http://www.businessweek.com/1999/99_25/b3634137.htm

In the May 2000 issue of Technology Review, in an article entitled "Biological Computing", it was reported that at a handful of laboratories across the country, researchers were building computer systems of tomorrow. The scientists were seeking to create cells that can compute, endowed with "intelligent" genes that can add numbers, store the results in some kind of memory bank, keep time and even execute simple programs. According to the article, "On an innovation timeline, today's microbial programmers are roughly where the pioneers of computer science were in the 1920s, when they built the first digital computers". See http://www.technologyreview.com/printer_friendly_article.aspx?id=12087

In March 2002, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab issued a press release entitled "Using 'Nature's Toolbox', a DNA Computer Solves a Complex Problem". It stated that "a DNA-based computer has solved a logic problem that no person could complete by hand, setting a new milestone for this infant technology that could someday surpass the electronic digital computer in certain areas". The results were published in the Journal of Science on March 14, 2002. The experiments were carried out by USC computer science professor Dr. Leonard Adleman. See http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/releases/2002/release_2002_63.html

In February 2003, National Geographic News reported in an article entitled "Computer Made from DNA and Enzymes" that Israeli scientists had devised a computer that can perform 330 trillion operations per second, more than 100,000 times the speed of the fastest PC. It ran on DNA. The previous year, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, unveiled a programmable molecular computing machine composed of enzymes and DNA molecules instead of silicon microchips. See http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/02/0224_030224_DNAcomputer.html

In August 2003, CNN Technology reported that Milan Strojanovic, of Columbia University, had published research describing a biological-based computer named MAYA that can't lose a game of tic-tac-toe to man. In 2006, it was further reported that scientists at Columbia University and the University of New Mexico had produced MAYA-II. This new version had a molecular array of YES and AND logic gates made up of 100 DNA circuits. See http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/ptech/08/18/biological.computing.ap/index.html and http://www.engadget.com/2006/10/16/meet-maya-ii-the-new-dna-computer-that-can-play-tic-tac-toe/

An April 2004 article in Science Daily entitled "Biological Computer Diagnoses Cancer and Produces The Drug" stated that a biomolecular computer had been developed that diagnoses in vitro a form of cancer - and then performs an appropriate medical intervention by producing a biologically active molecule with anti-cancer activity. According to the article, the input, output and software are made up of DNA molecules. Dr. Ehud Shapiro, of the Weizmann Institute, stated: "Our work represents the first actual proof of concept and the first actual demonstration of a possible real-life application for this kind of computer." See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/04/040430052921.htm

The following was reported in HPC Wire in March 2005 - "A new version of a biomolecular computer developed at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology - composed entirely of DNA molecules and enzymes - outdoes even the fastest of its kind. It can perform as many as a billion different programs simultaneously. Previous biomolecular computers, such as the one built by a joint team from the Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science three years ago, were limited to just 765 simultaneous programs. This new computer is also autonomous; it processes calculations from beginning to end without any human assistance." The development of the Technion's biomolecular computer was reported in the March 2005 Journal of the American Chemical Society. See http://www.hpcwire.com/hpc/355226.html

In a Medical News Today article entitled "Scientists Develop Tiny Implantable Biocomputers" published on May 26, 2007, it was reported that researchers at Harvard University and Princeton University had made a crucial step toward building biological computers - tiny implantable devices that can monitor the activities and characteristics of human cells. The article states "the information provided by these 'molecular doctors', constructed entirely of DNA, RNA, and proteins, could eventually revolutionize medicine by directing therapies only to diseased cells or tissues." The results were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology. See http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/71725.php

In MedGadget, July 3, 2007, there was another article on the group of scientists from Israel's Technion who have developed a biological computer, composed entirely of DNA molecules and enzymes that can generate the output of a molecular computation process resulting in a visible property of an organism. Results were reported in the June 2007 issue of Journal ChemBioChem. See http://medgadget.com/archives/2007/07/scientists_create_biomolecular_computing_device_with_bacterial_phenotype_output.html

Finally, in a May 2008 article in Scientific American there is an interesting article about a team of researchers from Davidson and Missouri Western State University and their use of DNA computers in living cells to solve a specific problem, something it is hard to conceive using an electronic, silicon-based computer to perform within a bacterial cell. Read about this at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=dna-computer-puts-microbe

Potential Benefits

Biocomputers are still in the research and development stage and have quite a way to go before they become viable commercial products. However, biocomputers utilizing nanobiotechnology may one day become the most energy-efficient, most powerful, and most economical of any commercially available computer. Another economical benefit of biocomputers lies in the potential of all biologically derived systems to one day self-replicate and self-assemble given appropriate conditions. Nanobiocomputers may play a key role in the future generations of implantable health IT systems. For more information on implantable nanomedical systems, read "Implantable Medical Devices & EHR Systems" published in Virtual Medical Worlds, June 2007 - http://www.hoise.com/vmw/07/articles/vmw/LV-VM-06-07-5.html

Conclusion & Recommended Next Steps

Biocomputers are at the "bleeding edge" of health information and/or computer technology. Products of this emerging field are still probably 10-20 years away from entering the commercial marketplace. As Professor Ehud Shapiro of the Weizmann Institute of Science has stated, "Today, most people believe that biomolecular computing will not beat electronic computers in the foreseeable future". Instead, he has said the primary goal is to try to use DNA computing to do things that traditional silicon systems cannot do. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7085154.stm

At this point, Chief Information Officers (CIO) of healthcare organizations should simply monitor progress of this technology periodically. This technology has tremendous potential down the road, however, for most healthcare organizations no specific action at this time is recommended.

A final note - John Reif, Duke University, wrote an excellent article on "The Emergence of the Discipline of Biomolecular Computation in the US" published in February 2002, that is well worth reading for those starting to explore this technology. See http://www.cs.duke.edu/~reif/paper/NGCsurvey/NGCsurvey.pdf

Selected Resources/Links

Authors

Peter Groen is a Director of the Shepherd University Research Corporation. He is also an adjunct faculty member in the Computer & Information Systems Department at Shepherd University in West Virginia.

Marc Wine is a former senior program analyst who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). He also is a guest lecturer on Medical Informatics at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


Peter Groen, Marc Wine

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