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IBM's "lab-on-a-chip" breakthrough brings ammo to the fight against cancer

Big things are happening on a nanoscale at IBM, where researchers have just developed a new lab-on-a-chip (LOC) technology that may help revolutionize how doctors diagnose diseases, particularly cancer.

A team of researchers led by scientists Joshua Smith and Benjamin Wunsch reported the separation of particles down to 20 nanometers in diameter — a research first that may enable them to analyze particles as small as DNA and viruses. They published their report this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

LOCs are decades-old devices designed to cram the analytical capabilities of a full-scale biochemistry laboratory onto a single silicon chip. And although these compact chips are still largely stuck inresearch and development, it’s thought that they’ll one day offer cheaper, faster, and more energy-efficient disease diagnoses than their larger counterparts.

“Most diagnostics require a huge biochemistry lab in order to process a sample,” Smith, an IBM Researcher in the Nanobiotechnology Group, told Digital Trends. He likened the discovery of early-onset disease to finding a needle in a haystack.

“What we’ve done is taken that process down to the scale of a chip,” he said, with a technology that may make the analytic capabilities of a full-scale lab available within a clinic.

In their paper, the researchers targeted the separation of small vesicles called exosomes, which have become a focus of medical research.

“Traditionally, people considered exosomes as garbage cans of unwanted cellular material that were excreted by cells,” Smith said. “In time, scientists have acknowledged that exosomes carry important genetic cargo such as DNA, RNA, surface proteins, and other biomarkers that are transported between cells.”

Exosomes are abundant within the body as well. And, since cancer cells shed so rapidly, exosomes offer oncologists unique insight.

“Therefore, by having a less invasive and cheap way of separating out exosomes for analysis, our lab-on-a-chip technology can give physicians a view into the origin of a cancer or if a cancer has metastasized before physical symptoms appear in the patient,’ Smith added.

Although the paper focused exclusively on exosomes, Smith suggests the ability to detect particles at this scale paves the way for detection of nanoscale bioparticles, such as viruses and nucleic acids.

The researchers still have a number of engineering obstacles to overcome until they can refine and scale the LOC technology. They’re currently working with scientists from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to confirm that their LOCs can detect specific cancer biomakers, with the hope that the chips can one day add to oncologists’ arsenal in their fight against cancer.