How nanotechnology is revolutionising medical diagnostics

The idea is that a patient blows into a small hole at the top of his or her mobile phone, where a carbon nanotube and silicon-based sensor will be able to detect the amount of nitric oxide in their breath. After a few seconds, a traffic-light warning system will come on to indicate high levels of nitric oxide and help warn of an asthma attack. This data can be sent via the mobile phone to a healthcare server, automatically updating the patient’s records and alerting a doctor if necessary.

’The technology is ready, but one of the biggest challenges is developing the infrastructure for all the data,’ explained Victor Higgs, chief executive of Applied Nanodetectors. ’You can imagine if a diagnostic tool becomes credible, there will be a huge amount of information. But with the right systems in place, it could be possible for you to monitor your health at home and automatically integrate that data with the tests done at a doctor’s surgery.’

“The technology is ready, but one of the biggest challenges is developing the infrastructure for all the data.” VICTOR HIGGS, APPLIED NANODETECTORS

In the next few years, Higgs believes there will be a surge of early-stage work being moved into the development phase. ’Now, more and more of these materials are available and the quality of these materials has improved a lot over the past five years,’ he said. ’The manufacturing process and the production capability will also improve and, once it does, the technology will become more readily available.’

Pratsinis believes that another major barrier to the implementation of nanosensor technology is public perception. Not only is there a question mark about the effects of manipulating nano-sized particles, there also remain ethical and cultural barriers in shifting healthcare monitoring away from specialists and to the individual.

But with the increasingly frequent announcements of breakthroughs in this area, it seems that a mobile phone that can detect fatal diseases might be available sooner than we think.

PSA test good as gold

Mini machines: Cell-sized nanobots are, as yet, a hypothetical nanotechnology concept
Mini machines: Cell-sized nanobots are, as yet, a hypothetical nanotechnology concept

A nanotechnology-based blood test that is claimed to be far more sensitive than existing tests for prostate cancer is being developed by US researchers.

Scientists at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago are using gold nanoparticles coated with antibodies that track down and attach to bits of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the blood. The test, known as VeriSens PSA, was developed using frozen blood taken from men after prostate surgery.

According to the researchers, the gold nanoparticles mean that the new test is around 300 times better than the current PSA test at identifying whether prostate cancer has been cured or is likely to return.

Its ability to detect very low levels of PSA could mean that doctors will be able to diagnose men with prostate cancer recurrence years earlier.