Tiny biomolecular chambers called nanopores that can be selectively heated may help doctors diagnose disease more effectively if recent research by a team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Wheaton College, and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) proves effective. Though the findings may be years away from application in the clinic, they may one day improve doctors' ability to search the bloodstream quickly for indicators of disease—a longstanding goal of medical research. The work was published online on January 24, 2013 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The team has pioneered work on the use of nanopores—tiny chambers that mimic the ion channels in the membranes of cells—for the detection and identification of a wide range of molecules, including DNA. Ion channels are the gateways by which the cell admits and expels materials like proteins, ions, and nucleic acids. The typical ion channel is so small that only one molecule can fit inside at a time. Previously, team members inserted a nanopore into an artificial cell membrane, which they placed between two electrodes. With this setup, they could drive individual molecules into the nanopore and trap them there for a few milliseconds, enough to explore some of their physical characteristics. "A single molecule creates a marked change in current that flows through the pore, which allows us to measure the molecule's mass and electrical charge with high accuracy," says Dr. Joseph Reiner, a physicist at VCU who previously worked at NIST. "This enables discrimination between different molecules at high resolution.
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