NEC develops super fast bionano chip

NEC develops super fast bionano chip

NEC has developed a prototype protein analysis technology that can diagnose diseases about 20 times faster than the time taken by current techniques.

The company's technology can complete an analysis of a blood sample in about 60 minutes or 70 minutes compared to the day or so such analysis takes by conventional methods, according to assistant manager at NEC's Nanotechnology Group, Wataru Hattori.

Certain proteins, called marker proteins, can act as early warning signs for diseases such as cancer.

Marker protein molecules could be identified for diagnostic purposes by finding their isoelectric points and their molecular weights, Hattori said at the Japan Nano Tech 2005 exhibition in Tokyo.

Isoelectric points were chemical features that referred to the electrical state of a molecule when it had no net charge, he said. Normally, protein detection chips use a gel across which an electric current is applied to find the targeted protein's isoelectric points.

In the new process, instead of being filtered through a block of gel, the protein molecules are separated by their isoelectric points by a capillary action as the proteins flow in a solution along channels in the chip, according to the company.

"We add a chemical called a reagent and the technique works much faster because it's in a liquid solution," Hattori said.

A test chip shown by NEC was 21mm square and contained four sets of tiny channels in which the capillary action takes place.

The protein molecules are then dried and irradiated by a laser. Their molecular weights are measured by a mass spectrometer. The laser helps the proteins leave the chip, and the mass spectrometer is used to judge the molecular weights of the protein molecules in the samples by measuring how early they reach a detector.

In the mass spectrometer, light molecules fly faster than heavy ones in an electric field.

The mass spectrometer judged the weight of the molecules by monitoring the timing of when each molecule reached a detector, the company said.

As well as being faster than conventional techniques that use gel blocks, the new method also needs blood samples of about 1 microliter compared to about 20 microlitres or more that were needed using conventional gel-based techniques, Hattori said.

A microlitre is one-millionth of a litre.

NEC is now talking to at least two Japanese universities to put the technology through clinical trials, which should last between two and three years, general manager of NEC's Fundamental and Environmental Laboratories, unichi Sone, said.

If those trials went well, the company should commercialise the technology around or after 2008, he said.

NEC believed the global market for protein analysis diagnostic chips would be about $US95 billion in 2010, he said.

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