ASU researchers going new places with nanotechnology

(2.17) Nano Horizontal
TINY TECHNOLOGY: Postgraduate student Ashley Kibel displays some the nanochips used in her nanotechnology research, focused on biomimicry. The scale of a nano is roughly 40,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. (Photo by Michael Arellano)
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Wednesday, February 17, 2010
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ASU scientists using nanotechnology are proving that bigger isn’t always better.

Nanotechnology, research and technology development at the atomic or molecular level, is a field ASU has delved into to advance understanding in bioscience.

ASU scientists are developing a DNA sequencer they say could one day redefine the world of medicine.

Stuart Lindsay is leading the team of researchers in creating a new device that could map human DNA at a record pace. Lindsay is a professor and the director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics.

“In principle, our main goal is fast DNA sequencing that is going to personalize medicine” Stuart said.

Essentially, the sequencer would work like a miniscule barcode reader, but instead of reading labels, it would read genetic code, giving an accurate readout of an individual’s medicinal needs based on his or her DNA.

Scientists hope it will become a useful tool for diagnosis and treatment for future patients.

Similar projects that aim to map or read parts of the human genome using technologies outside of nanoscience can take years and cost substantially more, Biodesign Institute spokesman Joseph Caspermeyer said.

“Sequencing technology is based in a multi-billion dollar industry,” Caspermeyer said “The Human Genome Project took about a dozen years and cost billions of dollars.”

The Human Genome Project, an international scientific effort to map and identify DNA, took 13 years from its start in 1990 to produce completed data.

The capabilities of nanotechnology change all that, Caspermeyer said.

“In the future, our project aims to make it possible for a DNA sequencing to be as typical as an ordinary blood test,” he said.

Caspermeyer described nanotechnology as taking existing technology and shrinking it.

ASU’s nanotechnology research is funded by a combination of investments and grants.

“There is a competitive process for getting funding from federal agencies,” he said.

About one in 10 institutions that apply for nanotechnology funding actually receive grants, Caspermeyer said.

“So there is a 90 percent chance that as a nanotechnology researcher, you are going to get turned down,” he said.

ASU is one of the few colleges in the nation that does extensive nanotechnology research, he said.

With any new science comes new risk, Caspermeyer said, and critics argue that nanotechnology could create problems for people that scientists cannot accurately predict.

“You’re creating particles and chemicals that probably have not existed before,” Caspermeyer said, “On top of that, there are environmental concerns.”

In response to these concerns, Caspermeyer said ASU has a section of research dedicated to analyzing risk.

“We have a group here studying social ramifications of nanotechnology,” he said. “There is a combination of too much hype at this point.

“Those that see it as a panacea — solving all problems of society — and then there are the naysayers that fear any new type of innovation because we don’t know the harm of it.”

Lindsay said the fears about nanotechnology aren’t well founded.

“There is a fear of the unknown, which makes me angry because we are so irrational of the hazards in our every day life,” Lindsay said.

Graduate student Ashley Kibel has worked with nanotechnology since she earned her bachelor’s degree from ASU in physics in 2005.

Kibel worked closely on the DNA sequencer project with Lindsay.

“The excitement you get when you see a result that is interesting — the excitement you get when you’ve spent two years of work and nothing comes of it and finally there’s something — makes it worth a million bucks,” Kibel said.

It is impossible to know at this point when a DNA sequencer might be used in the medical field, she said.

“We have a lot of work to get done, but we have made great progress,” Kibel said.

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