May 19, 2004
CD Will Simultaneously Test Concentrations Of Thousands Of Proteins

A report from Purdue University drives home the point that demand for consumer mass market electronics is funding the development of technologies that are greatly improving scientific and medical instrumentation.

A team led by physicist David D. Nolte has pioneered a method of creating analog CDs that can function as inexpensive diagnostic tools for protein detection. Because the concentration of certain proteins in the bloodstream can indicate the onset of many diseases, a cheap and fast method of detecting these biological molecules would be a welcome addition to any doctor's office. But with current technology, blood samples are sent to laboratories for analysis a procedure that only screens for a few of the thousands of proteins in the blood and also is costly and time-consuming.

"This technology could revolutionize medical testing," said Nolte, who is a professor of physics in Purdue's School of Science. "We have patented the concept of a 'bio-optical CD,' which could be a sensitive and high-speed analog sensor of biomolecules. Technology based on this concept could provide hospitals with a fast, easy way to monitor patient health."

CDs ordinarily store digital information such as computer data or music as billions of tiny "pits" in their surface. These microscopic pits, which represent binary ones or zeroes depending on their size, are etched in concentric tracks circling the midpoint from the inner to the outer edge of a CD.

"It is these pits which we transform into miniature test tubes," Nolte said. "Each pit can hold a trace quantity of a chemical that reacts to a certain protein found in the blood."

Blood contains more than 10,000 proteins that physicians would like to monitor, and Nolte said up to 10,000 tracks on a CD could be paired up with a different protein.

"Each ring of pits, or 'track,' on the CD could be coated with a different protein," he said. "Once the surface of a BioCD has been exposed to a blood serum sample which would not need to be larger than a single drop you could read the disk with laser technology similar to what is found in conventional CD players. Instead of seeing digital data, the laser reader would see how concentrated a given protein had become on each track."

Each pit is only a few micrometers millionths of a meter in diameter, but is nevertheless large enough to hold many thousands of individual detector molecules, each of which could pair up with and bond to a single protein molecule. The pits' capacity, Nolte said, would make the Bio-CDs an analog, rather than merely digital, screening tool.

An argument familiar to long time FuturePundit readers is that the rate of advance in biological science and biotechnology is accelerating because instrumentation is improving in speed, cost, and sensitivity by orders of magnitude. Much of this acceleration is happening for reasons unrelated to funding levels in biological sciences because many of the enabling technologies for this acceleration are being developing in other fields and industries for other purposes. This report about the use of consumer CD devices to read thousands of proteins at once illustrates this this idea rather nicely.

This isn't to say that basic research funding for biology is a waste of money. These Purdue researchers wouldn't be building their device if they didn't have the funding to do so. Also, once this device is functional it will be useful as a tool to carry out basic research more productively. Plus, there are plenty of potential new types of biological instrumentation, for instance using microfluidics, where it is taking years of basic research to solve the problems that block attempts to build useful devices.

Also read about earlier work by scientists at UC San Diego: CD Player Turned Into Bioassay Molecule Detection Instrument

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 May 19 10:40 AM  Biotech Advance Rates

Brock said at May 20, 2004 11:35 AM:

Randall -

In light of this trend, what do you suggest as a good priority policy for (to pick an example) NIH funding? Actual application work seems to get a lot of venture capital these days. Would you concentrate a large % on basic R&D? The kind of stuff that doesn't pay off for 5-10 years or more, or would you prefer shorter or longer periods?

Consider Google. Without any government support it received its first round of financing in 1997. Only now, 7 years later is it going public, allowing those private investors to get out. It seems like the private sector is very capable of providing short (1-10) year funds.


Randall Parker said at May 20, 2004 12:21 PM:


Good question. I'd have two priorities:

1) Instrumentation development. We need better tools. We need nanopore sequencers, microfluidics, and other tools that will allow us to accelerate the rate of development.

2) Rejuvenation therapies. I'd downplay research on particular diseases and instead focus on developing therapies to fix things in general. That means more on stem cells, tissue engineering, and techniques to do gene therapy. We need to be able to grow replacement parts most of all. But we also need to be able to repair nerve cells in situ. So we need better vectors for delvering gene therapy.

I'd shift money away from clinical trials and toward building better tools.

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