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

surgery
surgery

A gene-edited pig’s heart has been transplanted into a human for the first time

The procedure is a one-off, and highly experimental, but the technique could help reduce transplant waiting lists in the future.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

2021 tech fails concept
2021 tech fails concept

The worst technology of 2021

Face filters, billionaires in space, and home-buying algorithms that overpay all made our annual list of technology gone wrong.

Woman using Virtual Reality headset at night
Woman using Virtual Reality headset at night

The metaverse has a groping problem already

A woman was sexually harassed on Meta’s VR social media platform. She’s not the first—and won’t be the last.

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.