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Intel chip gear aims to detect disease

Can equipment used to make semiconductors help detect the early stages of cancer? The chipmaker and a cancer research center are going to try to find out.

Can equipment that's used to make semiconductors help detect the early stages of cancer? Intel and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are going to try to find out.

The chipmaker will construct a device, called a Raman Bioanalyzer System, at the Seattle-based research organization that will be able, ideally, to detect chemical anomalies in individual cells, which in turn could be used to flag diseases in their early stages.

Raman spectroscopy is used to analyze the chemical composition of chips during the fabrication process. When a laser beam is directed toward a chip or a region of a chip, the molecules in the light beam become stimulated and emit a specific spectrum of light, which the Raman spectrometer picks up. Because every molecule emits a different spectrum, the molecules can be identified.

"The instrument beams lasers onto tiny medical samples, such as blood serum, to create images that reveal the chemical structure of molecules," Andrew Berlin, lead researcher of Intel's Precision Biology program, said in a statement. "The goal is to determine if this technology, previously used to detect microscopic imperfections on silicon chips, can also detect subtle traces of disease."

Although Raman spectroscopy has been around for a while, it hasn't been used in this context, according to Berlin, because the fields of semiconductor manufacturing and biological research haven't interacted extensively until recently.

Life sciences has become a key area of growth for high-tech companies. Breakthroughs such as the mapping of the human genome have opened up new horizons in drug discovery and health care. Technologies such as server clustering and BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool), a complex application for protein analysis, have evolved to help scientists get a better grip on the mushrooming quantities of biomedical data they must analyze.

Biosciences organizations will spend an estimated $30 billion on technology-related purchases in 2006, up from $12 billion in 2001, according to research firm IDC.

The rising cost of health care, along with new legislative initiatives such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, are prompting hospitals and others to try to automate more of their systems.

Intel, for instance, is working on a program to develop computer systems that will help monitor the behavior of Alzheimer's patients. IBM and Hewlett-Packard also are concentrating intently on this market.

A formal announcement of the initiative will take place later at the BioSilico Seminar at Stanford University. The university also is opening the James H. Clark Center for interdisciplinary scientific study.