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Pop-up electronic sensors detect malfunctioning cells

 How Can Nanotechnology Detect Heart Health?

Written: March 2022

Research in science and healthcare is increasingly performed at a nanotechnology level, a fast-growing area. Nanotechnology, often called nanotech, exploits the very smallest components of our world, atoms and molecules. Nano is short for nanometer. The word nano comes from the Greek word for “dwarf.” A nanometer is a unit of measurement for length such as meters, centimeters, millimeters, inches, feet, or yards. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, 0.000000001. The term nanoscale is used to refer to objects with dimensions on the order of 1-100 nanometers (nm).

A billionth of a meter is hard to comprehend. I hope some comparative examples will help. There are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. A strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter. A human hair is about 60,000 – 100,000 nm wide. A fingernail grows 1 nm per second. A person 6 feet 6 inches tall is 2 billion nanometers tall.

Every week, I see something new in Medical Automation about nanotechnology in healthcare research. Most recently, I saw an article published in December in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.  Engineers at the University of California San Diego Jacob School of Engineering, led by senior author Sheng Xu, a professor of nanoengineering. PhD engineering students have developed a powerful new tool which can monitor the electrical activity inside heart cells. The engineers developed nanoscale “pop-up” sensors which can poke into cells without damaging them. The tiny device can measure the movement and speed of electrical signals traveling within a single heart cell as well as between multiple heart cells. The nanotechnology is the first to measure these signals inside the cells of 3D tissues.

The new nanoscale device could potentially enable scientists to get detailed insights into heart disorders and diseases such as arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), heart attack, and cardiac fibrosis (stiffening or thickening of heart tissue) not possible with traditional methods. Dr. Gu said, “Studying how an electrical signal propagates between different cells is important to understand the mechanism of cell function and disease.” One of the senior authors of the journal article, Dr. Sheng Xu, said, “With this device, we can zoom in to the cellular level and get a very high-resolution picture of what’s going on in the heart; we can see which cells are malfunctioning, which parts are not synchronized with the others, and pinpoint where the signal is weak.” The engineers believe they can help clinicians make better diagnoses.

The research described is at an early stage, but the engineers are optimistic the nanoscale device will become an important tool. Nanotechnology is helping to considerably improve, even revolutionize, many technology and industry sectors including information technology, homeland security, medicine, transportation, energy, food safety, environmental science, and many others.

Reflections – 2022

When I entered electrical engineering school in 1963, the courses in the curriculum were about circuits, vacuum tubes, transistors, diodes, transformers, and associated components. The prefix “bio” did not exist. If you look at the course catalog of any engineering school today, most all of the electrical and mechanical engineering courses are bio-this and bio-that. Medical research was conducted by people with medical degrees. Today, the advancement of medical research is greatly supplemented by engineers. In addition to designing bridges, roads, and computers, engineers are devising methods to study human biology at the nanoscale level. I continue to believe the breakthroughs in medical research over the next ten years will exceed what has been accomplished over the past 100 years.