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article imageNanotechnology harnessed for disease detection

By Tim Sandle     Jun 29, 2016 in Science
Researchers are utilizing nanoscale technology to design machines aimed at disease detection. These promise faster and more accurate diagnosis of patients.
At present, the use of nanoscale machines to detect diseases are at the conceptual level, with theoretical science papers outlining how such devices might work. Trails so far have focused on the rapid detection of the Ebola virus.
The concept is based on understanding DNA and how it behaves. With DNA, which has a double-helix structure, one strand of DNA will bind only with a complementary side. These complementary strands find each other automatically. This is the principle behind the new machine. With the machine, the components, once added to water and then heated and cooled, seek each other out and proceed to assemble correctly.
The machines look for specific diseases at the genetic level. In the trials with Ebola, a mock version of the viral genome was used to test out the reliability and repeatability of the device. On detection of certain genetic material, indicating a pathogen of concern, the device triggers a photonic system that flashes a light. The production of light is detected using a fluorometer. A fluorometer measures the parameters of fluorescence, such as intensity and wavelength distribution of emission spectrum. These are detected after excitation by a certain spectrum of light.
The detection equipment could be rendered so small that a portable test kit can be created, with some of the work carried out using a smartphone. The idea is that a box and a connected smartphone could by-pass traditional medical facilities.
Such machines could be used worldwide. Of particular use would be in the developing world, where there are regions with limited infrastructure and access to medical equipment and diagnostic services. With West Africa, for example, there were areas affected by Ebola where medical facilities were hundreds of miles away.
The researchers are of the view that the nanoscale technology could also be used to deliver precision medicines. The device was described as "the newest, coolest" by scientist Eric Henderson (@HenderBooks) on Twitter.
The research was conducted at the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. The findings to date are outlined in the journal Scientific Reports. The research paper is titled “Programmable DNA Nanosystem for Molecular Interrogation.”
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