Tiny Funnels, Huge Advances

Nanochannels could lead to medical treatments much tougher on cancer yet far easier on the human body.

By JOHN HOLDER

Advance-tinyfunnelsImagine a funnel so small that only molecules can pass through it—and only one at a time. Working with these funnels, known as nanochannels, could prove essential in creating cancer treatments that are both safer and more effective.

Applying nanochannels to cancer research is a collaboration between Jun Kameoka, an associate professor of electrical engineering in Texas A&M’s Dwight Look College of Engineering, and Mien-Chie Hung, a professor of molecular oncology at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Kameoka and Hung work in a new specialty called bionanotechnology: designing and building micro- and nanostructures that can perceive and manipulate biological molecules.

The researchers have developed a system that detects interactions between as many as eight proteins. The Nanochannel Protein Complex Detection System then analyzes the interactions between these cancer growth–related proteins for their dynamics and complexity.

These interactions, which take place along cancer-related signal pathways, play important roles in tumor progression. These roles include the creation of cancer cells, the spread of cancer cells throughout the body and the resistance of some cancer cells to drug treatments.

Identifying and understanding how these signal pathways work among multiple proteins is critical for improving methods in early diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. But current techniques for determining protein-to-protein interaction are limited.

Most knowledge about protein complexes has come from detecting interactions between only two proteins. Yet many complexes contain more than just two interacting proteins.

The Nanochannel Protein Complex Detection System may offer a solution.

First, nanochannels are fabricated on wafers made of fused silica. The fabrication process takes place in a clean-room setting that uses lithography, etching and fusion bonding techniques.

Next, the team takes cells from cancer patients at M.D. Anderson and extracts molecules that the researchers suspect are involved in cancer growth.

Then, these molecules are marched through the nanochannels, one at a time. Kameoka and Hung focus a 375-nanometer-wavelength laser on the nanochannels. As each molecule passes before it, the laser detects that molecule’s specific fluorescent signal. It also identifies the interactions between that specific molecule and its protein complex.

These tiny bits of data contribute to a wealth of information that may lead to drugs that are more focused in how they attack specific cancers. In addition to being more effective, these improved treatments should take less of a toll on the patients who undergo them.

The new information also should allow researchers and regulators to screen new cancer drugs far more quickly. A faster screening process will get advanced treatments to cancer patients sooner—and perhaps improve their chances for survival.

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