IBM’s research scientists have developed a new lab-on-a-chip technology that can separate biological particles at the nanoscale to enable doctors to detect diseases such as cancer, even before symptoms appear.
IBM is working with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York to perfect the technology and to test it on prostate cancer, which is the most common cancer in men in the United States.
The collaboration uses a technology developed at IBM called nanoscale deterministic lateral displacement, or nano-DLD, to separate the biological particles at nanoscale.
“We expect that this device will allow us to identify cancer in patients that still have no symptoms,” said Gustavo Stolovitzky, program director for IBM Translational Systems Biology and Nanobiotechnology at IBM Research, in an IBM video on the technology.
The IBM lab-on-a-chip would work like a home pregnancy test. “Imagine this scenario: Annual physical examinations are supplemented by an affordable home diagnostic chip, allowing you to regularly monitor your baseline health with just a simple urine sample,” said Fiona Doherty, a content specialist at IBM Research, in a blog post. “Though outwardly you appear to be in good health, the device reveals a fluctuation in your biomarker profile, indicating the possible emergence of early stage cancer development or presence of a virus.”
IBM began its nano-DLD efforts two years ago when a cross-disciplinary team at IBM Research led by Dr. Joshua Smith, research scientist and master inventor, and Stolovitzky began working on retooling silicon technology and using it to separate nanoscale-sized particles such as the elements of viruses and cancers, Doherty said. The IBM Research team published details of its breakthrough this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
“All the processes that you would have to do to analyze a disease and get a diagnosis, in theory you could shrink that down to a microchip and do the same analysis that you would have to do with a whole lab in a hospital or a special company,” said Ben Wunsch, surface chemist at IBM Research, in the IBM video. “You could do it right on a chip.”
IBM is pioneering the detection of exosomes in the process of liquid biopsies. The company is trying to detect those exosomes in a fast and cheap way, Stolovitzky said. “Exosomes are little vesicles on the order of 20 to 100 nanometers, which is the size that our devices can handle,” he said in the video. “They are very, very small—100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.”
A “liquid biopsy” can be obtained from urine or saliva samples. Then tiny particles need to be separated for downstream detection of a disease, Doherty said.
“Being able to separate particles in this size range means that we can target a lot of things that cause disease,” said Stacy Gifford, an IBM Research biochemist, in the IBM video. “So exosomes are one thing. They’re a good marker for a lot of different cancers and then there are other things like viruses and proteins and protein complexes that also play a really important role in not just disease, but healthy states as well.”
This is where the nano-DLD technology comes in. Using nano-DLD, a liquid sample passes in a continuous flow through a silicon chip designed with an asymmetric pillar array. This array allows the system to sort the microscopic particles, separating them by size down to tens of nanometers resolution, Doherty said.
“The ability to sort and enrich biomarkers at the nanoscale in chip-based technologies opens the door to understanding diseases such as cancer as well as viruses like the flu or Zika,” Stolovitzky said in a statement. “Our lab-on-a-chip device could offer a simple, noninvasive and affordable option to potentially detect and monitor a disease even at its earliest stages, long before physical symptoms manifest. This extra amount of time allows physicians to make more informed decisions and when the prognosis for treatment options is most positive.”
Dr. Carlos Cordon-Cardo, professor and chairman for the Mount Sinai Health System Department of Pathology, is optimistic about the new technology and the liquid biopsy because it enables physicians to look at illnesses in new ways and treat patients earlier in their battle with diseases such as cancer.
“If we can identify not only one molecule or one protein or one DNA, but if we can start looking at the disease at the multidimensional level, we can get inside of the disease and look at it from inside out,” he said.