Collaboration puts nanotech tool to biological tests

Intel's computer-chip technology could advance biological research and early cancer detection by enabling scientists to look at cells in single-molecule detail
Dr. Mark Roth and Dr. Andrew Berlin of Intel stand in empty room
Dr. Mark Roth (left) of Fred Hutchinson's Basic Sciences Division with Dr. Andrew Berlin, Intel's director of biotechnology research, shown in the center facility that will house a unique laser microscope developed by Intel to help biologists and doctors detect disease and improve human health. Photo by Todd McNaught

Fred Hutchinson and the Intel Corporation will collaborate to explore whether methods that can spot microscopic imperfections in silicon chips also can detect the subtlest traces of disease or track single molecules in living cells.

Through the affiliation, the center becomes the first biomedical research institution with the opportunity to apply Intel's highly sensitive technology-used to fabricate the world's fastest computer chips-to the development of improved ways to study, diagnose and prevent cancer. Both institutions view the collaboration as a longer-term effort in which they will learn from one another how best to adapt advances in computing research to solve some of the most pressing problems in medicine and biology.

"This collaboration is a unique and exciting interaction," said Dr. Lee Hartwell, center president and director. "Intel is the best in the world at making computer chips and Fred Hutchinson is the leading biomedical research institution. This opportunity for collaboration between our institutions is bound to lead to major breakthroughs."

The project will be launched at the center with the construction of a powerful analytical device that beams lasers onto tiny samples of human tissue or single cells to create images that reveal the chemical structure of molecules. Known as the Intel Raman Bioanalyzer System, the instrument-the most sensitive of its kind-was developed by scientists in Intel's Precision Biology group, a team of chemists, engineers, biologists and physicists dedicated to working with the medical community to create technology to improve human health.

Intel has donated funds to build the system and also will hire and provide salary support for two on-site specialists to staff the biolanalyzer facility, which will be located on the second floor of the Hutchinson Building. In additional, Intel will make available pilot-project funds to center researchers who wish to test the bioanalyzer on their own research problems.

The partnership dovetails with Fred Hutchinson's efforts to develop tests to identify proteins in human blood serum that foretell the susceptibility, presence or prognosis of diseases such as cancer. The center recently raised more than $6 million from foundations and private donors for the project, dubbed the Early Detection Initiative. Donors included the Paul G. Allen Foundation for Medical Research, the W. M. Keck Foundation, the Listwin Family Foundation and contributors at Fred Hutchinson's 2002 Holiday Gala.

Dr. Mark Roth, an investigator in the Basic Sciences Division who helped to forge the collaboration with Intel, said that in addition to its potential for early-detection research, the alliance between the two institutions opens limitless possibilities for biological discovery of all kinds.

"The ability to look at things in single-molecule detail could advance many areas of biological research," he said. "Using the system Intel will build for us here, we'll be able to look at cells in ways we haven't been able to before to obtain the richest amount of information we can get. This is true discovery-based science that could potentially let us see things inside cells that have never been seen before. It's an approach that would be impossible to do with government grants."

Such basic-research studies could help scientists better understand the differences between healthy cells and diseased cells, potentially leading to broad medical applications.

The Intel collaboration is part of a broader center initiative to establish alliances with industry to tackle complex research problems, said Chuck Hirsch, a Fred Hutchinson trustee and founding chair of the board's Strategic Implementation Committee.

"Structuring the type of strategic technology partnerships represented by this Intel initiative is essential to ensure the center's place at the cutting edge of medical research," he said. "The marriage of the best of science represented at the Hutch with the most advanced technologies represented by these leading companies will surely lead to new frontiers in defining the future of medicine. The fact that such companies seem eager to partner with the center indicates the appreciation they have for the important work underway here."

Dr. Andrew Berlin, director of biotechnology research at Intel, said that the partnership is part of a long-term effort to explore how the company can apply its expertise in analytical chemistry and instrumentation design to the development of technology that is currently unavailable to biologists.

"The potential for overlap between biology and nanotechnology is enormous," he said. "Our Precision Biology group wants to understand how we can best adapt Intel's nanotechonologies to disease detection and other biological problems. Building a relationship with Fred Hutchinson will make it possible for us to do that."


Nanotechnology is a branch of engineering that focuses on things that are smaller than 100 nanometers-the equivalent of about one hundred thousandth of an inch, or about the size of 300 atoms.

To create ever-smaller computer microprocessor chips, which are made from components far smaller than human cells, Intel has become a world leader in the design of instruments that manipulate tiny components during the chip-fabrication process and analyze the chemical composition of chips to detect impurities or contamination.

Raman spectrometry

A powerful method to analyze chemical composition during the fabrication process is a technique known as Raman spectrometry, which involves shining a laser beam at an object. Most light scatters from the object, but a small proportion interacts with molecules within the substance, forming a spectrum that can be detected by sensors in a Raman spectrometer. Because every substance has a unique chemical composition, every substance produces a unique Raman spectrum-the equivalent of a chemical bar-code tag.

The Intel Raman Bioanalyzer System couples Raman spectrometry with a microscope, which enables lasers to be focused on extremely small quantities of human tissue, such as blood serum, or on individual living cells without damaging them.

Roth said that applying the Intel system to the analysis of biological samples is analogous to seeing things in color that had previously been seen only in black-and-white.

"We don't know what we'll find when we put our biology in front of their detectors," he said. "It may be like viewing cells with the world's most powerful microscope."

Berlin said that the open-ended, discovery-based nature of their scientific interaction with Fred Hutchinson is exactly what Intel is looking for.

"We want to look 10 years down the road-not just two or three-to figure out how Intel can really help biologists and doctors make an impact on improving human health."

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