A biosensor microchip could improve drug development

Researchers at Stanford University have figured out how to use the same sensor technology used in computer hard drives, which could one day speed up drug discovery.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

Imagine how life would be like if we had microchips that can detect cancer in our bodies, predict how drugs will react with all types of cells in our body and identify pathogens in our food and water supply before they have the chance to enter our body.

This all might sound like science fiction to you, but that could not be further from the truth. Researchers are able to do all of the above and more.

Scientists at Stanford University have made microchips with an array of nanosensors that might one day improve how drugs are developed.

So far, researchers created a microchip with 64 nanosensors. But the researchers don't think cramming 100,000 nanosensors on the chip should be a problem. Like computer chips, there's no reason why biosensor microchips can't hold more as well.

The more sensors are packed onto one chip, the faster and more sensitive your results will be: Imagine how this could help researchers study how drugs interact with proteins. That last point is critical for drug discovery. Knowing how proteins bond with each other is important for understanding how the body will respond to drugs.

"In one test, you could look at a drug's affinity for every protein in the human body," Richard Gaster, a Stanford researcher, said in a statement. "So we can start to predict the adverse affects to this drug without ever putting it in a human patient," he said.

Nanosensors have improved in several ways:

  • researchers use magnetic nanotags and attached them to particular proteins to make the system more sensitive. The tagging system allows researchers to see how strong the bonds are between the proteins
  • the data can be analyzed within a few minutes (something that normally takes a few hours)

For instance, if you want to determine how a drug will bind to breast cancer cells, then you better figure out how the drug will also bind to other cells in the body, the scientists say. The nanotags help the researchers figure out the strength of the bonds. The Stanford researchers think their technology could drastically improve the speed of drug development.

The whole field of biosensors is interesting to me. It has improved so much since I studied it in school.

For instance, researchers at Kansas State University are making a hand-held device that can detect cancer in the human body and pathogens in the food and water supply, according to a news report. The point is to detect the offending organisms early, to prevent an outbreak from occurring.

There's another small device that can detect cancer and can potentially be tweaked to identify the presence of HIV. When implanted in the body, some sensors can even look for signs of a heart attack to prevent the onset of severe heart disease.

Of course, on that last point, anytime the biosensors enter the human body, like anything else, there's always the chance it will be rejected.

“What we are talking about is subjecting people to implantation of some long-term sensor that is reading out information about their physiological state,” Megan Moynahan told Chemical & Engineering News.

Biomarkers could help monitor signs of disease before any symptoms are known, reports C&EN News. But the devices can be used in other ways: They can help people stay healthy and help athletes improve their performance.

It's not like we have biosensors monitoring our bodies in real-time just yet, but the idea doesn't seem that far-fetched either.

New biosensor microchip could speed up drug development, Stanford researchers say [Stanford news office]

The study was published in Nature Nanotechnology.

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