February 13, 2007
Chip Separates Single DNA Strands

As regular readers know, I keep arguing that the biological sciences and biotechnology are going to advance at a rate similar to the rate of advance in the computer industry. Why? Computer technologies adapted to labs such as microfluidic devices and DNA gate arrays will displace old style flasks, beakers, human-viewed microscopes, and the like. Here's another example of this trend. Some scientists at U Wisc-Madison have used computer chip fabrication technologies to produce a nanoscale device that can separate out individual strands of DNA in preparation for sequencing them.

Now, however, scientists have developed a quick, inexpensive and efficient method to extract single DNA molecules and position them in nanoscale troughs or "slits," where they can be easily analyzed and sequenced.

The positioning in troughs is a needed precursor step before reading the DNA letters in each strand. So these scientists have moved a big (or incredibly small) step closer toward very small and therefore very cheap DNA sequencing devices.

The technique, which according to its developers is simple and scalable, could lead to faster and vastly more efficient sequencing technology in the lab, and may one day help underpin the ability of clinicians to obtain customized DNA profiles of patients.

The new work is reported this week (Feb. 8, 2007) in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) by a team of scientists and engineers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"DNA is messy," says David C. Schwartz, a UW-Madison genomics researcher and chemist and the senior author of the PNAS paper. "And in order to read the molecule, you have to present the molecule."

Since computer technology will drive biological technology forward at a rate similar to what we see in the computer industry the future rate of development of new knowledge and eventually new treatments will far exceed what we've seen in the past.

The computer industry is providing the technologies that are accelerating the rate of biotechnological advancement. Semiconductor fabrication technology provided these researchers the tools they needed to fabricate a device that can separate out single strands of DNA.

To attack the problem, Schwartz and his colleagues turned to nanotechnology, the branch of engineering that deals with the design and manufacture of electrical and mechanical devices at the scale of atoms and molecules. Using techniques typically reserved for the manufacture of computer chips, the Wisconsin team fabricated a mold for making a rubber template with slits narrow enough to confine single strands of elongated DNA.

The ability to sequence individual DNA strands will cost less than sequencing of larger amounts of material. Mass production of chips that can sequence DNA from a single cell will make personal DNA profiles commonplace. Also, the ability to sequence a single cell's DNA will find use in criminology, cancer research, and in choice of custom cancer treatments.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 February 13 09:18 PM  Biotech Advance Rates

Mike Anderson said at February 14, 2007 6:48 AM:

microfluidic devices and DNA gate arrays will displace old style flasks, beakers, human-viewed microscopes, and the like.

"Take their place alongside" I'll believe; "displace" is some mighty big talk. Old reliable tools don't instantly vanish. Just look up on the roof this spring: the roofers will all be using pneumatic nailguns, but Home Depot is still selling one hell of a lot of hammers.

David A. Young said at February 14, 2007 9:06 AM:

Granted, Mike...but how many horse-drawn plows do they sell? Certainly, no useful tool/technology is displaced instantly, but some quicker than others, and I think Mr. Parker is right that this technology will change out relatively quickly.

rsilvetz said at February 14, 2007 9:18 AM:

Geez the rate of advance has gone from geologic time to glacial time. I suppose that is an exponential advance but it will do us no good for three generations. Things do not make it out of the labs to the clinic -- the FDA makes it too hard. Last time I looked, there isn't a Moore's Law for Medicine. Get back to me when there is one...

Just to remind everyone -- FDA doesn't approve anything that doesn't have NIH tentacles and the NIH doesn't investigate anything the FDA is unlikely to approve. And so long as the FDA sits on everything like an 1800 lb gorilla you have no chance of any significant SENS advances.

The problem of course, is that there should be neither an NIH nor an FDA.

Remember when a young man had his heart penetrated by a metal shaft and aggressive cardiologists regenerated his heart muscle using autologous stem cells? Even though every aspect of this procedure is 100% legal at the state of the art in medicine, the FDA censured the cardiologists involved and threatened them with license revocation via their respective medical boards for engaging in an un-approved procedure and human medical experimentation. Never mind the Institutional Review Board had cleared the procedure!

Want another example? BMP-7 or Bone Morphogenic Protein 7, formerly known as OP-1, already approved to help heal bones. The preponderance of the evidence shows that it also reverses kidney disease. Fat chance of being able to get an IV of it to reverse your tubulointerstitial disease... First a method patent encumbers it --absurd!, second the NIH hasn't finished studying it -- never mind that the issue is now totally settled in the mind of any competent kidney researcher, third the FDA is making it almost impossible for any human experimentation -- the company that owns the rights has been stymied in moving thru the drug approval process. Now it's only rampant speculation, but does anyone think BMP-7 will make it thru with less than 10 years left on the patent without an IND filing started yet? And remember it is a method patent as BMP-7 itself is not subject to patent... Just go to show you that unlike DCA, even a patent doesn't help...

Jonathan said at February 14, 2007 5:23 PM:

Yeah, that is why the other countries will kick our butts with medical science. Also, I think another factor is that we are a bunch of religious squawking chicken bigots...

purenoiz said at February 14, 2007 5:55 PM:

Whose running the FDA? NIH? NIC?

The revolving door in DC from big pharma to govenrment institutions back to big pharma is what's killing medical research. It's become business first, science second, safety and efficacy last. The share holders and ceo's of this industry are slowing down real progress.

Plus the idea of medical "intervention" vs medical "support" or prevention.
I personally think that we as people need to do more to support human processes, not stop them i.e. lipitor and Hmg-CoA.

I do think that is plenty to worry about when new drugs come to market given the publicity of increased risk such as celebrex, vioxx and that recent cholesterol drug they pulled the plug on due to increased death vs. placebo.

Not to forget the the recent drop in Breast Cancer rates, sinply due to women stopping HRT. If a drug performed as well as removing that risk factor there would be ticker tape parades across America.

Randall Parker said at February 14, 2007 6:13 PM:


The roofs will be prefabricated and/or installed by robots.

Robert Silvetz,

I see two things changing the lay of the land with regards medical regulation:

1) Microfluidics will allow people to create any compound in the privacy of their home. They'll download software that'll program their microfluidic devices.

2) China.

The FDA's power is going to decline.

Cedric Morrison said at February 15, 2007 4:53 AM:

Remember the gray-market clinics in Neuromancer for those who wanted medical treatments or alterations without governmental interference? Has anyone, perhaps a small Caribbean nation, yet instituted first-class hospitals for North Americans who want experimental medical procedures? There ought to be a market for them.

India has become a destination for medical tourism, but it is a long way away from the U. S., and it isn't quite what I have in mind. I'm thinking about treatments that are in the pipeline but will take years to get through it, risky treatments that help some people but hurt others and thus haven't been approved, patented treatments that some people couldn't otherwise afford, or experimental treatments the insurance won't pay for.

Lono said at February 15, 2007 12:55 PM:


Yes I am often reminded of that story too.

If only, perhaps, someone would set up an island nation that pours it's resources into advancing scientific knowledge and proceedures without all the criminal cabal bullsh*t.

But who would be so bold to step up and do it?

I know I would apply for citizenship tommorrow if such a place existed.

Sounds farfetched maybe - but didn't a group of slaves found their own nation on nothing much more than an ideal?


(things didn't work out maybe - but you can in many ways thank the CIA for that)

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