Clinical laboratories and pathology groups may eventually use these devices to detect minute quantities of biomarkers

IBM has regularly declared its interest in being a player in the field of healthcare big data. Now comes news that the information technology giant wants to develop lab-on-a-chip (LOC) technology that can handle different types of clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology tests.

As reported in Nature Nanotechnology, researchers at IBM are working with a team from Mount Sinai Health System. Together, they created a lab-on-a-chip device capable of separating biomolecules as small as 20nm in length from urine, saliva, or blood samples without the need for specialized clinical laboratory equipment. The technology is called nanoDLD.

Current testing of this lab-on-a-chip focuses on exosomes and cancer research. However, researchers note that the asymmetric pillar array on their silicon chip can also separate DNA, viruses, and protein complexes. With further development, they hope to separate particles down to 10nm in length. This would allow isolation of specific proteins.

Detecting Minute Quantities of Biomarker Particles

Speaking with the IBM Research Blog, Gustavo Stolovitzky, PhD, Program Director of IBM Translational Systems Biology and Nanobiotechnology Group stated, “Everything reduces down to the same thing: being able to have a small and affordable diagnostic tool that can detect minute quantities of biomarker particles that tell physicians something about a person’s health.”

Molecular Diagnostics Will Shift Current Dynamic of Healthcare

According to an IBM press release, separating molecules this small using an LOC is a first. Still in testing and development, the researchers hope to further confirm their device’s capabilities by testing exosomes for indicators of prostate cancer. Though still far from production-ready or market clearance, researchers hope to highlight how molecular diagnostics and similar tools can help to shift the current dynamic of healthcare.

In the video above (click on photo to play), Gustavo Stolovitzky, PhD, Program Director of IBM Translational Systems Biology and Nanobiotechnology Group, explains how medicine of the future will incorporate elements from molecular biology and nanotechnology to develop point of care and home-based monitoring of health states. IBM Research partnered with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to develop exosome-based liquid biopsies using IBM’s nanoDLD technology. (Video and caption copyright: IBM Research.)

In the IBM Research Blog article, “Accelerating Early Disease Detection with Nanobiotechnology,” the leader of the Mount Sinai Health System research team, Carlos Cordon-Cardo, MD, PhD, Chair of the Department of Pathology at the Mount Sinai Health System and Professor of Pathology, Genetics and Genomic Sciences, and Oncological Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine, stated, “Today we do not pursue ‘healthcare’ in the context of its thorough definition. Today, we conduct essentially what we can define as ‘sick care.’ … Exosomes could assist in early detection of disease. Questioning and interrogating which messages are starting to be sent between organs to predict what may happen, it would be one of the most interesting new ways to look at healthcare.”

Big Tech Companies Are Investing in Precision Medicine

This development, however, is part of a larger trend that pathology groups and medical laboratories should note—big technology corporations investing in precision medicine and related technologies. IBM already has its IBM Watson Health and IBM Healthcare divisions. Particularly with IBM Watson Health, developing technologies that interact and integrate with their existing services might ebable larger corporations to capture a portion of the emerging molecular diagnostics and genetic testing demand generated by precision medicine.

IBM isn’t the only major technology corporation investing in healthcare. As outlined by Forbes, Alphabet—the holding company formed by Google—is investing heavily into healthcare-related ventures as well. Many of these deal with genetics, molecular diagnostics, and oncology. While laboratories and clinics now hold the keys to much of the data driving precision medicine, offerings such as Google Genomics might deteriorate the infrastructure advantage labs have built.

Convincing Clinical Laboratories to Adopt New Technology

The amount of activity from global technology leaders in these areas indicates that they see them as important parts of the future of healthcare. IBM’s Watson Health, Google’s DeepMind, and Microsoft’s Project Oxford, all showcase the power of cloud computing, cloud-based infrastructure, and machine learning, in helping to tackle complex problems, manage ever-expanding data pools, and create intelligent solutions. Combined with the new diagnostic capabilities of LOC devices, they are capable of driving innovation within precision medicine and helping to gain both acceptance and credibility for up-and-coming technologies and techniques.

However, even with infrastructure advantages, these big corporations must still overcome one of the biggest obstacles facing LOC developers and researchers—creating a device that both achieves market clearance and remains affordable enough for mass production.

Even then, as highlighted in the recent Dark Daily e-briefing, “Lab-on-a-Chip Diagnostics: When Will Clinical Laboratories See the Revolution?,” these devices will need to convince medical laboratory scientists, pathologists, clinical laboratories, and other medical professionals to adapt current standards, workflows, and common practices, to use their new devices over already-existing lab equipment and infrastructure.

Until then, clinical laboratories can continue to reap the rewards of research into LOC systems and ever-decreasing equipment footprints. Through proper positioning and collaboration, medical laboratories might also find powerful allies in promoting precision medicine and revolutionizing healthcare in these tech giants.

—Jon Stone

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