In terms of their size and sensitivity, nanoscale devices offer the potential for interacting with single molecules. Nanoscale mechanical devices enable us to measure the forces that bind biomolecules — for example, an antibody to an antigen — on the scale of the individual hydrogen bonds involved.

Q: What does this mean for biology and medicine?

A: This has enormous implications. Think about the genomics revolution. We think of the polymerase chain reaction [PCR] as one of the keys to genomics: how genes replicate and turn on and off. PCR enables us to fill test tubes with vast volumes of replicated DNA to do the testing necessary for this.

Contrast that with proteomics, the study of structure and function of proteins. Nanomachines could help us unlock a tremendous amount of knowledge in proteomics. This is the next step in understanding molecular biology, yet we don’t have the ability to replicate proteins in the same way, in such volumes, so they’re much harder to study. Plus we’re learning that there are many times the number of proteins [in the human proteome] than there are genes in our genome.

Q: How will nanomachines make this possible?

A: The nanosensors and nanomachines that are now emerging suggest that we’ll ultimately be able to do individually “personalized” medicine. Consider the example of cancer. Through all the innovations and tools that have emerged in the genomics era, we can now do a molecular profiling of large populations of patients suffering from cancer on a patient-by-patient basis. But today, detailed tissue samples would typically come from autopsies. Real-time genomic analysis could help reveal that each patient’s version of a similar cancer is distinct at the molecular level.

Q: What does this mean for the business of medicine?

A: Today, big drug makers target these diseases very broadly, not individually. But at the molecular level, each incidence of cancer is different, so the blockbuster drug approach is simply not applicable. [In the future] each disease will be treated uniquely, as a molecularly distinct manifestation. This new paradigm is disruptive to big pharma. There won’t be any Lipitor, no big billion-dollar drugs if we’re worrying about individuals instead of general classes of disease.

Q: How soon will this happen?

A: Laboratories and clinicians will be making the first use of these devices in the next couple years, and commercial production of very simple versions of these devices are likely within the next five years.

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