Skip to Content

Cheaper Diagnostics

A mix of “bar-coded” particles could detect multiple compounds at once.

By simultaneously scanning for thousands of genes or proteins in a biological sample, doctors could diagnose many diseases in a single step. But today’s DNA or protein microarrays are too expensive for widespread clinical use, in part because their manufacture is a complex, multistep process.

A potentially cheaper tool for detecting telltale DNA and proteins appears on this page: capsule-shaped polymer particles, each 180 micrometers long. Each particle can be loaded with a specific biomole­cule so that one half of the particle fluoresces when it detects a disease target. Imprinted with bar-code-like patterns of holes, the particles can be read optically; they could serve as detectors for more than a million distinct biological targets. Technicians with the right optical equipment could, in theory, mix the particles with a sample and read off the results.

Unlike microarrays, the particles can be manufactured using a single, integrated process, which was developed by MIT chemical engineer Patrick Doyle, doctoral student Daniel ­Pregibon, and colleagues at MIT and Harvard Medical School. The process begins with two adjacent 100-­micrometer-­wide streams of fluid. One of the streams contains biomolecules that will attach to disease targets. A pulse of ultraviolet light passes through a stencil and strikes the streams, causing precursors of polyethylene glycol in both to solidify into a single particle. The stencil gives one half of each particle an identifying pattern of holes.

Jay Groves, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, calls the synthesis a “clever” step toward low-cost diagnostics. One remaining challenge is to develop a more practical system for reading the particles: Doyle and colleagues use a bulky, impractical fluorescence microscope.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.