Last week, U.S. tech giants Google made a splash in the media, announcing plans to develop new ‘disease-detecting magnetic nanoparticles’.
This was almost universally welcomed – after all, trying to detect diseases earlier is something that’s a focus of many research organisations, including ours.
“The technical definition is that a nanoparticle is an object that is less than 100 nanometres wide along one of its edges,” Professor Duncan Graham told us. A nanometre is a thousandth of a thousandth of a millimetre. In other words, it’s tiny.
At that scale, things behave differently. “You get a different biology, chemistry and physics than you do with bigger things. And that’s really attractive to scientists.”
“Nanoparticles can be made of anything – they can be metallic, organic, or inorganic, and they come in all manner of different shapes and sizes,” he said.
As a result they have a variety of origins. Some are naturally occurring – in soot for example – whereas others can be made in the lab, sometimes from complex biological molecules.
“Nanoparticles have an extremely high surface area in relation to their volume. This means they can carry a lot of ‘stuff’ on their surface – proteins from blood, for example. And this means they’re good for detecting things, because they can really boost a signal”
For example, a protein that’s relatively scarce in the blood – and therefore difficult to measure – can collect on some nanoparticles in amounts large enough to detect. But how does this work in practice?
“That’s difficult to give a single answer to,” says Graham. “There’s a bewildering amount of modification that researchers around the world are adding to the surface of nanoparticles. You can attach biomolecules like proteins or DNA to them, and make them change properties so they produce optical, magnetic or electrochemical signals. There are a lot of applications because there’s so much chemistry you can do on their surface.”
Read full, original article: What exactly is Google’s ‘cancer nanodetector’?