The scientists at Eagle Research and Development have their work cut out for them. Their technology, a single molecule detection device, has the potential to identify and quantify each molecule in a complex sample, suggesting implications for basic research, disease diagnosis, and personalized treatment. And while they're working to turn theory into reality for the tool, some very interested people will be keeping an eye on them: Applied Biosystems recently established a collaboration with Eagle under which ABI has an exclusive two-year option to license the detection technology.
Eagle's roots were far from the biomedical community. Jon Sauer founded the company in 1994 to develop opto-electronic communications for computers. But within a few years, the company shifted its focus to the analysis of biomolecules. A research grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute led to the development of a device made up of nanopores lined with semiconductor-based transistors.
When a current is applied across the pore, molecules in the sample flow through the opening and present a charge distribution to the transistors. In theory, every molecule has a three-dimensional profile of charges on its surface - a signature that could allow it to be identified. This technology could also quantify each molecule, serving as "an exceptional molecular counting device," Sauer says.
Since it is not known how molecules will react to the environment of the nanopore, part of the development will be focused on establishing a library of charge signatures. In particular, early work will focus on identifying proteins and protein-protein interactions. Although chemical and three-dimensional structures can be a guide in determining the charge profile of different molecules, "most of this work will have to be done empirically," Sauer says.
Development will also focus on decreasing the size of the nanopores and increasing their density on the silicon-based chip. In theory, it should be possible to create a chip with thousands of pores; if each pore has the potential to make 10,000 measurements per second, "the sampling rate is so enormous that you can imagine having a very large number of molecules distinguished in a short amount of time," Sauer says.
It will also be worth watching to see if the transistors are able to distinguish between the four nucleic acids of DNA. If so, Sauer believes this device could perform rapid sequencing of both patient and pathogen DNA, "allowing for an exquisitely targeted treatment."