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New Nanoscale Tool May One Day Build Molecular Structures that Treat Disease

A research team led by Ozgur Sahin, Ph.D., a Scholar in Residence at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, has developed a tool for rapidly and efficiently building molecular structures that could one day be used to treat and diagnose diseases. Sahin’s findings appear in the current issue of Nature Communications.

This false-colored electron microscopy image shows a T-shaped silicon-nitride cantilever, which is designed for high-speed intermolecular force measurements.

The nano-scale (one billionth of a meter) tool can construct complicated structures out of biological molecules at a rate that is 10,000 times faster than current methods. In addition to being able to manipulate molecules, the new tool can also recognize their individual characteristics, which ensures a more efficient building process.

Molecules exist in assorted and complementary shapes and, when paired correctly, they can recognize each other and snap together to form large structures in much the same way that interlocking pieces form a jigsaw puzzle.

Scientists hope one day to capitalize on these interconnecting properties to construct sophisticated nanodevices. Such devices could be assembled molecule by molecule into tiny biological computers that can be programmed to perform functions, such as delivering drugs to specific targets, performing surgery on living cells, or generating images to diagnose diseases.

But, achieving these goals has been hindered by the fact that the current tools available are not up to the task. Not only are they slow in manipulating individual molecules, but they don’t always know when an individual molecule has been delivered to the right place to snap together with a complementary partner. Without this knowledge, the assembly process is highly inefficient.

Single-molecule force spectroscopy on the microsecond timescale. Intermolecular forces between receptor molecules (green) and ligand molecules (red) twist the T-shaped cantilever. Twisting motion allows probing interactions that last only a few microseconds.

Sahin’s innovative new technology offers a tool that is both rapid and “smart” in its ability to recognize successful pairing of individual molecules. That intelligence has enabled the tool to serve as a new kind of microscope– identifying and locating biological molecules with a precision beyond the reach of even the most powerful optical methods.

“We will be able to study life processes of the cell, how cells communicate, and how cells respond to their environment,” said Sahin. “This ability could help solve the mysteries associated with many diseases.”

The technology is showing tremendous potential in medical applications. Sahin is already using it in the lab to detect and quantify the proteins in certain biological samples. Protein concentrations convey important information about the stage and/or progression of diseases, giving doctors critical insight into diagnostics and treatment.

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