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Pin-studded nano beads match drugs to diseases

Researchers may soon be able to test an infinite number of possibilities for drug treatments in a single step thanks to Lab-on-Bead technology, researchers say.

Jed Macosko (right) and colleagues discuss their Lab-on-Bead technology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Wake Forest University

An emerging technology called Lab-on-Bead could cut years off drug development time, according to new research to be published in the September/October issue of the Journal of Molecular Recognition.

Lab-on-Bead is a diagnostics tool that essentially decorates tiny beads--so small that roughly 1,000 of them could fit across a human hair--with pins designed to join the DNA bar codes of drugs to matching diseases. This process enables researchers to match drugs to diseases in a single step, speeding up drug discovery by up to 10,000 times, the team reports.

"There are an infinite number of possibilities for combining carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and other elements into different shapes that interact differently in the cells," says Jed Macosko, associate professor of physics at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Those shapes could block...all kinds of things. If there's some cure to a disease or way to diagnose it, we're going to find it faster."

Macosko likens the process to Dr. Seuss' Whos in Whoville yelling together so that Horton the elephant and his friends could hear; in this instance, all the drugs home in on their matching "home" bead. "It helps the most interesting new drugs work together to stick their heads up above the crowd," Macosko says.

The team is already focusing on the breast cancer protein HER2. "We want to find a molecule that detects that cancer cell," says Martin Guthold, also a physics professor at Wake Forest who works alongside Macosko. "In that circumstance, you could use Lab-on-Bead as a diagnostic tool."

With funding help from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, as well as screening chemicals from Harvard University in Boston and Universite de Strasbourg in France, Macosko and his team are now testing how drug companies could use the technology via their start-up company NanoMedica.

NanoMedica has one year to bring the technology to market or relinquish the rights to the patent, so expect some kind of progress within the year.