Bhatia & teams develop new way to assay DNA damage to cells

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May 5, 2010

MIT researchers have developed an array of microscopic wells that can capture single cells and analyze the amount of DNA damage in each cell.  Credit: David Wood

As reported in the MIT News Office May 4 article, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Health and Sciences Technology professor Sangeeta Bhatia and collaborators in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering have devised a new way to rapidly reveal DNA damage under a variety of conditions, promising to make such analysis a routine aspect of applications such as drug screening and epidemiological studies of the effects of environmental agents.

Our DNA is under constant attack from many sources: Radiation, ultraviolet light, and contaminants in our food and in our environment can all wreak havoc on our genetic material, potentially leading to cancer and other diseases. Analyzing DNA damage is critical to understanding those diseases, as well as seeking new treatments, but current tools for detecting DNA damage make for tedious and time-consuming work.

The new technique is based on a 30-year-old test known as the “comet assay” — named for the comet-shaped smear that the damaged DNA forms during the test. However, the new technology can analyze a much greater number of cells, at a much faster rate, than the traditional comet assay.

“We expect this could enable studies on a scale that hasn’t been possible before,” says David Wood, a postdoctoral fellow in HST who is lead author of a paper being published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that describes the new technique. Wood worked closely on the project with David Weingeist, graduate student in the Department of Biological Engineering.

“A critical feature of our technology is that it can be used to detect genotoxic [mutation-causing] agents in the environment, even if only very basic research equipment is available,” says Bevin Engelward, associate professor of biological engineering and co-senior author of the paper with Sangeeta Bhatia, professor of HST and electrical engineering and computer science and member of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Enabling the prevention of genotoxic exposures in developing nations could ultimately improve the health of millions,” she added.

Read more in the News Office May 4, 2010, article and the linked material below:

HST Laboratory for Regenerative Technologies

MIT Press Release: MIT researchers develop new tool for high throughput DNA damage analysis