San Jose, Calif. Researchers are tapping nanotechnology to deliver a device that could some day conduct as many as 2,000 tests on individual biological cells in real-time.
The so-called nanolab chip could leapfrog today's gene and protein microarrays to create a much faster, more granular device for diagnosis and drug screening applications.
The chip uses microfluidics to transport individual cells across the device, nanowire sensors less than 10 nanometers in diameter to identify genes and proteins in the cell and nanomechanical sensors to detect protein and gene interactions. The chip may be able to accomplish with a few cells and minutes of tests what today's microarrays need relatively large biological samples and hours or a day to achieve. Like other advanced projects, the researchers are applying microelectronics technology to medical diagnostics (see stories, page 26).
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology, UCLA and the Institute for Systems Biology (Seattle) are each building a part of the device. "We are at the stage of trying to integrate all these technologies together," said James R. Heath, a professor of chemistry at CalTech in Pasadena. "That turns out to be a significant challenge."
By year's end, the seven-member group hopes the device can identify a dozen protein or gene signatures in 20 minutes by integrating two or more of the device subsystems now in development. A year later, the group aims to detect as many as 50 signatures in less than a minute based on integrating three or more subsystems.
"Once we get there, we will be able to demonstrate it's possible to go to 1,000 to 2,000 signatures," said Heath.
"This brings molecular biology to reality," Heath said. "If you can do these tests in real-time using just one to five cells, it changes your ability to diagnose diseases and screen for new drugs."