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April 25, 2012

Artificial nanopores for early disease detection

A University of Texas at Arlington multi-disciplinary team has received a $360,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to build artificial nanopores made of silicon that can detect “bad molecules” as a very early indication of cancer and other diseases.

Nanopores are tiny openings about 1,000 times smaller than a human pore on the skin or a human hair, made in very thin silicon chips. The silicon chips are the same material in computer processors and memories.

Iqbal’s team will run human blood-derived samples through these artificially created nanopores in a silicon chip and record how the composition may change as a function of disease



An Atomic Force Microscope image of a 100 nm nanopore in silicon. Green is the molecule of interest in sample that will be run through the nanopore in the lab.





Researchers will measure the reaction between ions of blood and nanopores and compare the data with other non-reactive nanopores, which will determine abnormal levels of particular chemicals that indicate whether a disease is present at the molecular level.

“We know many variants of certain chemicals like enantiomers, or the abnormal amounts of certain chemicals like cholesterol. These chemicals tell us if someone is subject to certain diseases,” Iqbal said. “Now we will be able to detect these variants at extremely small amounts and in a portable system format. We’ll be able to detect even a few hundred copies of bad molecules to identify risks of diseases like cancer. That is very, very early detection.”

Enantiomers are mirror-imaged optical isomers or compounds with the same molecular formula but different structural shapes such as a pair of human hands. They are mirror images of each other but not superimposable.

Another example is thalidomide, a drug introduced in the late 1950s to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. One enantiomer of the drug was found to be a good sedative for morning sickness. The mirror image of that enantiomer, present in the drug formulation, however, caused birth defects, leading to the drug being pulled from the market.

Through the new research, Iqbal and his colleagues would be able to determine similar differences at the molecular level, before the bad variants of new molecules cause devastating effects.

Team members said crossover applications for the technology also exist. For instance, the nanopore technology detection could be applied to gauge air or water quality.

“Again, the earlier we know whether a water or air source is polluted, the better off the people who live there will be,” Iqbal said.



An Atomic Force Microscope image of a 100 nm nanopore on right. The sketch shows molecules in a sample passing through an engineered nanopore.

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