Published October 06, 2009
Imagine a world where medicine is guaranteed not to cause adverse reactions because it's designed for an individual's DNA.
Imagine a diet tailored to the precise speed of a person's metabolism. Using a little microelectronics, a little physics, and no small dose of biology, IBM has brought that futuristic world a little bit closer.
The DNA Transistor is a project from IBM Research that aims to advance personalized medicine, by making it simpler (and much cheaper) to read an individual's unique DNA sequence — the special combination of proteins that makes you unlike anyone else.
The technology isn't finished yet, but its potential is tantalizin enough that IBM wanted to share it with the world. And the company claims researchers are making progress.
Essentially a bar code reader for genes, the DNA Transistor is part technique and part device. It consists of a 3-nanometer wide hole, known as a nanopore, in a silicon microchip. A sensor in the pore can read DNA and determine its unique makeup.
The challenge scientists face is controlling the rate at which a strand moves through that nanopore: A DNA molecule needs to spend enough time in it for the sequencing to work. By cycling voltages to the transistor's poles, IBM aims to move the DNA through the nanopore at a consistent rate one nucleotide (molecule of DNA) at a time.
The company's researchers are currently investigating various housings for the pore as well, honing the multilayer (metal and dielectric) nano-structures to move samples through more evenly.
“The technologies that make reading DNA fast, cheap and widely available have the potential to revolutionize bio-medical research and herald an era of personalized medicine,” said IBM research scientist Gustavo Stolovitzky. “Ultimately, it could improve the quality of medical care by identifying patients who will gain the greatest benefit from a particular medicine and those who are most at risk of adverse reaction.”