Nanobio tool in search of a few good applications


By John Carroll

Eric Henderson worked for years with atomic force microscopes while he was doing research work at Iowa State. The AFM technology gave him a chance to scan an incredibly small area with great precision.

But Henderson wanted to go to such scales with minute quantities of biologic material. And his newly public company, BioForce Nanosciences, got him there.

For more than a year now, the Ames, Iowa-based company has been selling its NanoArrayer System, which uses microfluidic surface patterning tools to deliver biomaterials on a chip that are one to 20 microns in size, or 20 billion times smaller than a drop of blood. Working on the attoliter to femtoliter scale, it’s been used to test biomolecular interactions, which is particularly important in studying protein samples. And at that size, adds Henderson, researchers are able to use the NanoArrayer to create ultra-miniaturized chips, biosensors and other biomedical devices.

For example, said Henderson, by working at such scales it’s possible to develop a process to identify a cancer biomarker by conducting a test with only four human cells. And that can have all sorts of implications for, say, a brain tumor patient whose surgeon would want to run tests on tumor materials before deciding on a treatment method.

“It offers much less invasive access,” said Henderson, with materials that could be gathered from a tiny swab.

“If you want to print a silicon chip with antibodies and build a diagnostic test, this is the way to do it,” said Henderson. With biosensors, he adds, it’s possible to use the NanoArrayer to afford the detection of minute quantities of materials.

“It’s really the world’s smallest pipettor,” said Jan Hoh, associate professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins University, referring to a standard piece of lab equipment used in molecular research. The pipettor carefully dispenses molecules for use in DNA research, proteomics or other applications.

What’s really exciting about the NanoArrayer, said Hoh, is that the technology platform it offers is so new and operates at such a tiny scale that it is still largely in virgin territory when it comes to outlining its potential. As more researchers pick them up and start using them in the lab, new applications will evolve that haven’t even been thought of yet.

BioForce Nanosciences’ NanoArrayer System uses microfluidic surface patterning tools to deliver biomaterials. Photo courtesy of BioForce Nanosciences
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“You’re going to have a lot of clever people out there figuring out what they can do,” said Hoh. “My guess is that one doesn’t yet know the best places for it.”

Hoh was one of the first researchers to get his hands on one of the devices. And he still hasn’t seen anything else on the commercial side of lab equipment that can do what the NanoArrayer does.

For the past several years, he’s been using it to pattern proteins to study cell biology.

“We’re trying to build little micro environments using the NanoArrayer to prove cell structure and function, specific and general. That thing can make spots [that are] microns in dimension.”

It also gives researchers the versatility to keep changing those environments, using microfluidics to write new patterns for fresh study every day.

“In research, you want one pattern today and another for the next,” said Hoh. “Your questions evolve. You don’t make the same pattern a million times.” That’s a major advance over the older lithography technology that had been limited to printing patterns over and over again.

For now, Hoh is one of just a handful of scientists using the NanoArrayer. Researchers at Harvard Medical School received funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute to buy one for their work on tiny biosensors. And scientists at Paris’ Universite Pierre & Marie Curie are now using the NanoArrayer to study cell morphology establishment and migration.

Henderson, meanwhile, is beavering away at new improvements that will help make it more marketable. The NanoArrayer occupies about a square foot of bench space, and Henderson would like to shrink that footprint even more. “The device can be made smaller,” said Henderson. “That’s on the drawing board.”

The company, meanwhile, is growing. Henderson has been hiring sales and development people to help ramp up sales, growing the staff to 22. And with just a few NanoArrayers in use at a cost of about $125,000 each, he’s clearly looking forward to getting more pushed out into the scientific community.

BioForce Nanosciences