By Thomas Shambler
The computer company says new chipset uses silicon to sort particles by size
Cancers start small. They grow from the nanometre scale, as small as DNA, RNA and proteins. As such, cancer detection has increasingly been moving down in size – now using 'liquid biopsies' that filter blood and other bodily fluid to detect problems in cells.
IBM has announced it's now able to build a 'lab-on-a-chip' device, capable of sorting these small particles that hold signs of cancer. The chips could be out within the next three years.
Why is IBM getting into cancer research? When you break it down, the same technology that is used to make semiconductors is used in these tiny sorting devices.
The new chip – which measures just two centimetres squared – uses silicon pillars just 12 nanometres apart (a human hair is about 100,000 nanometres across). The pillars effectively filter particles, healthy cells pass through without incident while damaged or mutated ones bounce around inside.
While this is hardly the first lab on a chip to sort biological particles, it is the most exact. The new chip can sort particles down to 20 nanometres – 50 times smaller than what's currently available. That enables it to separate exosomes from the blood. Exomes - long thought to be a cell's waste – contains information about a cell's health, including markers for cancer.
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City is collaborating with IBM on the chip, using it for an upcoming prostate cancer study. While these chips not expected to change cancer detection overnight, it is a positive step toward cracking open and genetically sequencing cell mutations.