Here’s another example of taking existing laboratory technology and applying it in a new way. A scientist at Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom is using an existing technology to create what he describes as “intelligent molecules,” capable of identifying tags in human cells that could signal the presence of organisms common in an epidemic. They also could be use to track infections in a population and identify patients who would be vulnerable to certain infections.
This new application of existing technology earned A. Prasanna de Silva, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Organic Chemistry at Queen’s University, the 2008 Royal Society of Chemistry’s Sensors Award, sponsored by GE Healthcare. The award is given biannually for chemical input into the design of novel sensors or novel applications of existing sensors.
The technology incorporates fluorescent “catch and tell” sensors that emit light signals when they catch chemicals in the blood. It is familiar technology to most laboratories, as it is incorporated into in blood diagnostic cassettes sold worldwide. Hospitals, ambulances, veterinarians, and others use this fluorescent sensor technology to monitor blood for levels of common salt components such as sodium, potassium, and calcium.
The worldwide market for this type of blood diagnostic cassettes totals $50 million. Roche Diagnostics Inc. uses the fluorescent sensor technology in the chemistry module of the OPTI point-of-care blood analyzer, a module that has produced worldwide sales of $39 million.
Using an extension of the same design, de Silva has developed molecules that act as ‘logic gates,’ which are similar to the mechanisms in computers. De Silva and colleagues at Queen’s University are using these molecular logic gates as identification tags for objects the size of biological cells.
The new application could be used in a variety of clinical and other settings, de Silva said. “One such use could be as an ID tag for cells in an epidemic, such as a bird-flu outbreak,” he explained. “From a population, our sensor molecules could help track infection and highlight vulnerable people. Another one is a ‘lab-on-a-molecule’ system which combines several lab tests with a rudimentary diagnosis without human intervention.”
This example demonstrates how advances in science, combined with the ongoing ability to continually shrink the size of diagnostic analyzers, will package long-established and familiar diagnostic technologies in new ways. It is a reminder that, outside today’s clinical laboratory, large numbers of research projects and biotech companies are rapidly developing new assays. It is one reason why laboratory medicine is almost overwhelmed by the daily and weekly stream of press releases and product launches for new biomarkers and new laboratory tests.
New ‘Catch-And-Tell’ Molecules Designed By Queen’s Chemist