Call it a virtual Lego set for taking on cancer.

A company called Parabon Nanolabs has recently developed a groundbreaking suite of CAD tools and technologies aimed at creating the next generation of cancer-fighting drugs, and the company says it's essentially a 3D printing system to tailor drugs for treating cancer.

Parabon NanoLabs was co-founded by Duke University associate ECE professor Chris Dwyer, Dr. Michael Norton, a pioneer in DNA nanotechnology, and Dr. Steven Armentrout to identify applications for DNA nanotechnology. Using seed money and support from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, Parabon began investigating techniques which use synthetic DNA to create breakthrough products.

Cancer medicines, typically so expensive that they might reasonably be priced on a per molecule basis, are the target of the work. Developing them is a complex process which requires that a particular molecule must be created that the body can absorb. The drugs must also be distributed to the proper tissues, metabolized, and then excreted.

Armentrout describes the process as creating complementary sequences of DNA which can form structures of virtually any shape.

"We can now 'print,' molecule by molecule, exactly the compound that we want," says Armentrout. "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."

Parabon's InSequio design studio was built to allow drug designers to construct molecules in a step-by-step process via a series of drag-and-drop menus. The software is sufficiently advanced that designers can rotate and bend components, calculate the forces and stresses a molecule is subjected to by neighboring structures and determine the strength of bonds acting upon them.

As building blocks, InSequio uses nucleic acids. Designs are then optimized using a supercomputing cloud platform dubbed the Parabon Computational Grid. The grid is used to search for sets of DNA sequences suited to self-assembly.

Dr. Armentrout founded Parabon in 1999. Early in his career, Armentrout worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and a large federal government contractor to design and develop object-oriented image processing algorithms and analytical tools. Over the course of the last decade, Armentrout has worked on creating computing solutions for the Internet, enterprises and virtualized data centers. He earned his PhD in computer science from the University of Maryland, and his work has been published in scientific and technical journals which include Science magazine, Neural Computation and Artificial Intelligence in Medicine.

Parabon's InSequio software is essentially the tool used to created DNA-based assemblages of drugs in an on-demand process, a sort of Just-In-Time manufacturing process for cancer-fighting drugs.

Consider that a custom treatment might one day contain elements to treat the side-effects of primary treatments, blood thinners, pain medications and even anti-nausea medicine, and the appeal is obvious.

"When designing a therapeutic compound, we combine knowledge of the cell receptors we are targeting or biological pathways we are trying to affect with an understanding of the linking chemistry that defines what is possible to assemble," said senior research scientist at Parabon, Hong Zhong. "It's a deliberate and methodical engineering process, which is quite different from most other drug development approaches in use today."