Jargon Watch: Silicages Could Make Gene Therapy Less Risky
n. A nanostructure made of silica that may provide a safer carrier for gene therapy.
Viruses are nature’s Trojan horses—they replicate by smuggling their genes into a host’s cells, turning them into mini virus factories. So in the late ’80s, researchers got the clever idea of sucking out the viral innards and inserting good genes to fight diseases. Then, in a 1999 clinical trial, a teenager died from a horrific immune response to one of those so-called viral vectors. Today, immune risk still limits approval of gene therapies.
Enter the silicage. Using AI to interpret images from cryo-electron microscopy, scientists at Cornell recently discovered this cagelike orb, which forms naturally in solutions of soap and silica. Turns out, the shape is similar to some viruses, and researchers think silicages could also be used to deliver genes. Coat them with the kind of binding peptides that viruses use and target cells would slurp up the payload.
Other synthetic vectors (e.g., carbon buckyballs) are emerging, but there are plenty of possible uses, like transporting drugs through the body. Different jobs will likely require different carriers. Expect silicages to be an essential part of the future fleet.