Faster, less expensive medical diagnostics through nanotechnology

Artistic representation of a carbon nanotube and two protein molecules.
Image courtesy of Oregon State University
Artistic representation of a carbon nanotube and two protein molecules.

Nanomedicine will make major contributions to health care not only by providing new and improved therapies, but by providing new diagnostic methods that will be faster and less expensive than currently available procedures. A hat tip to KurzweilAI News for reprinting this news release from Oregon State University “Nanotube technology leading to fast, lower-cost medical diagnostics“:

Researchers at Oregon State University have tapped into the extraordinary power of carbon “nanotubes” to increase the speed of biological sensors, a technology that might one day allow a doctor to routinely perform lab tests in minutes, speeding diagnosis and treatment while reducing costs.

The new findings have almost tripled the speed of prototype nano-biosensors, and should find applications not only in medicine but in toxicology, environmental monitoring, new drug development and other fields.

The research was just reported in Lab on a Chip [abstract], a professional journal. More refinements are necessary before the systems are ready for commercial production, scientists say, but they hold great potential.

“With these types of sensors, it should be possible to do many medical lab tests in minutes, allowing the doctor to make a diagnosis during a single office visit,” said Ethan Minot, an OSU assistant professor of physics. “Many existing tests take days, cost quite a bit and require trained laboratory technicians.

“This approach should accomplish the same thing with a hand-held sensor, and might cut the cost of an existing $50 lab test to about $1,” he said.

The key to the new technology, the researchers say, is the unusual capability of carbon nanotubes. An outgrowth of nanotechnology, which deals with extraordinarily small particles near the molecular level, these nanotubes are long, hollow structures that have unique mechanical, optical and electronic properties, and are finding many applications.

In this case, carbon nanotubes can be used to detect a protein on the surface of a sensor. The nanotubes change their electrical resistance when a protein lands on them, and the extent of this change can be measured to determine the presence of a particular protein – such as serum and ductal protein biomarkers that may be indicators of breast cancer.

The newest advance was the creation of a way to keep proteins from sticking to other surfaces, like fluid sticking to the wall of a pipe. By finding a way to essentially “grease the pipe,” OSU researchers were able to speed the sensing process by 2.5 times.

Further work is needed to improve the selective binding of proteins, the scientists said, before it is ready to develop into commercial biosensors.

“Electronic detection of blood-borne biomarker proteins offers the exciting possibility of point-of-care medical diagnostics,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Ideally such electronic biosensor devices would be low-cost and would quantify multiple biomarkers within a few minutes.”

The above news item indicates not only how nanotechnology is going to improve medical care, but it hints at the future economic impact of widespread nanotechnology. If a five-minute test using a handheld biosensor in the doctor’s office replaces several expensive lab tests performed by skilled technicians, what happens to the jobs of those technicians? Historically technological innovation has created more and better jobs than those that were lost, and in this case the expanding nanotechnology industry may create jobs for the displaced medical lab technicians. But it is not at all clear that this trend will persist with the more radical displacements that will occur as nanotechnology advances toward productive nanosystems and atomically precise manufacturing. As early as 1986 in Engines of Creation Eric Drexler described how advanced nanotechnology and artificial intelligence could produce a world of abundance with no need of human labor and proposed an Inheritance Day to distribute the wealth. Three years ago here on Nanodot J Storrs Hall described how artificial general intelligence could produce an “early retirement” for the human race (see “Early retirement” and “Early retirement — how soon?“). Perhaps the issue of how transformative technologies will affect jobs, employment, and the distribution of wealth deserves more attention.
—James Lewis, PhD

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