IBM using nanotech to read DNA, personalize medicine

Combining nanotech and microchips, IBM says it's aiming for cheaper, faster DNA sequencing

Scientists at IBM are using a combination of nanotechnology and microchips to map out personal genetic code -- a development that could significantly improve the process of diagnosing and treating diseases.

Merging biology with computer technology, researchers at IBM are working on a project that aims to make it easier to decode human DNA, and thus help scientists discover and test new medicines and medical techniques. And, IBM says, a faster and less expensive way to obtain genetic information would help doctors better understand their patients' predisposition to diseases.

The ultimate goal of IBM's project is to create process that could read, or sequence, a person's genome at a cost of $100 to $1,000. In comparison, the first sequencing ever done by the Human Genome Project cost $3 billion, according to IBM.

"The technologies that make reading DNA fast, cheap and widely available have the potential to revolutionize bio-medical research and herald an era of personalized medicine," said IBM research scientist Gustavo Stolovitzky, in a statement today. "Ultimately, it could improve the quality of medical care by identifying patients who will gain the greatest benefit from a particular medicine and those who are most at risk of adverse reaction."

IBM reported today that its researchers have drilled nano-sized holes, or nanopores, into microchips. When DNA strands are passed through the holes, the chips can sequence the genes.

Researchers said one of their challenges has been to figure out how to control the speed of the DNA strand's movement through the tiny nanopore. It needs to move slowly through the hole in order for sensors in the chip to be able to read the sequencing.

IBM reported that its scientists used a multi-layer nanostructure to surround the nanopore. The structure creates an electrical field inside the nanopore, which traps the DNA strand and should allow scientists to have minute control over the speed at which the strand moves through the hole.

Combining DNA with nanotechnology is an idea that's been getting some traction.

Just two months ago, IBM announced that it was using a combination of DNA molecules and nanotechnology to create tiny circuits that could form the basis of smaller, more powerful and energy-efficient computer chips that also are easier and cheaper to manufacture.

The DNA molecules would serve as scaffolding on which carbon nanotubes could assemble themselves into precise patterns. IBM said the process could help chip manufacturers move from 45-nanometer processor technology to 22nm or smaller.

And last winter, researchers at MIT found a way to use a combination of nanotechnology and DNA to fight cancerous tumors. The university announced that a group of scientists there had developed sensors made out of carbon nanotubes that were wrapped in DNA. The sensors then were placed inside living cells to determine whether chemotherapy drugs were reaching their targets or attacking healthy cells.

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