Think of constructing a complex work of architecture such as a castle. Now imagine if when all its individual parts are gathered together, the castle automatically begins to assemble by itself. Stretch that imagination by scaling down the size of this castle to be a size so small that it has to be measured on the same scale as viruses, DNA, and small molecules. This fascinating nanoworld is where Eric Henderson, a professor of genetics, development and cell biology at Iowa State University, thrives in.
Eric Henderson (Credit: Iowa State University News Service)
“It’s the magic of how DNA works,” said Henderson. Henderson, collaborated with his former graduate student Divita Mathur, to formulate a technique to construct nanomachines that may have the potential to impact real-world medical applications in the future.
Together they published an article in the peer-reviewed Scientific Reports illustrating the success achieved by his laboratory in designing a nanomachine with the capacity to detect a copy of the Ebola virus. He said that nanomachines would be of great value in the developing world, where the availability of diagnostic medical equipment is likely to be scarce. He added that his brand of nanotechnology would be inexpensive to fabricate and easy to deploy. The nanomachine can be used in tandem with a smartphone app, which would almost enable most people to use it and detect Ebola or any other pathogens and diseases without the need for conventional medical centers.
Henderson explains that the key factor lies in comprehending the rules that direct how DNA operates.
It’s possible to exploit that rule set in a way that creates advantages for medicine and biotechnology.
With the DNA’s double-helix structure, one strand of DNA will combine only with a corresponding side. What is fascinating is that these matching strands are capable of finding each other automatically, much like a castle that can self-assemble. Henderson adapted those principles for his nanomachines.
Once immersed in water and then heated and cooled, the machine parts locate each other and assemble accurately without any additional effort from the operator operating the machines.
To understand how “nano” is a nanomachine, Henderson describes it as nearly 40 billion individual machines accommodated in one drop of water.
The machines can serve as a diagnostic tool that identifies specific illnesses at the genetic level.
Henderson and Mathur, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., designed the nanomachines to detect signs of Ebola for their paper, though during the experiment phase of the research a fake version of the viral genome was used and not the actual thing.
Henderson made use of an embedded photonic system that checks for the existence of the target molecules. If the machines pick up signs of existence, the photonic system alerts by flashing a light, which can be identified with a machine known as a fluorometer.
Henderson said this version of technology could be altered to detect specific kinds of pathogens or molecules, thus facilitating literally anyone in anyplace without proper access to medical facilities to perform diagnostic tests.
Going forward, he also believes that related nanoscale architectures could be applied to supply drugs accurately to the area it needs to reach at exactly the right time. Designed from DNA, these nanomachines would fundamentally encapsulate the drug and direct it to its target.
Henderson said such developments are within the grasp of advance medicine. It simply needs scientists in the medical field to think small – nanoscale small.