Intel has launched a research project aimed at applying the same technology the chip maker uses to detect flaws in microprocessors to the field of cancer detection.
In a joint project with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in the US, Intel researchers will build a device called the Intel Raman Bioanalyser System.
Under the research effort, Intel will foot the cost of assembling the optical equipment, computers, lasers and microscopes that make up the Raman Bioanalyser and will supply two full-time employees for technical support.
Intel already uses a type of Raman analyser to examine and detect defects in the transistors on its microchips, which are expected to approach 10 billionths of a metre in size by 2011, according to Andrew Berlin, the lead researcher with Intel's Precision Biology programme.
Biological samples are much larger than this, said Berlin. Viruses, for example, tend to be in the 100 nanometer range, or about twice the size of the 50-nanometer transistors made using Intel's state-of-the-art 90 nanometer process, he said.
The Raman Bioanalyser, which will be assembled by the end of the year, is designed to use these chip manufacturing techniques to identify markers - portions of genes or proteins that produce a recognisable trait - in blood samples, according to Lee Hartwell, president and director of the Hutchinson centre.
Because the system is able to study the samples at the molecular level, it could become an ideal diagnostic tool for identifying markers, Hartwell said. "A lot of [diagnostic tools are] not very effective because we don't have a good science for identifying these markers."
Existing diagnostic techniques like mass spectronomy have had only limited success, but the Raman Bioanalyser holds promise because it analyses biology at such a minute level.
Whether or not the Raman Bioanalyser will produce scientifically useful results remains to be seen, said Hartwell. But researchers at the centre are now developing ideas for how to test the effectiveness of the system.
"If we can begin to detect mass markers of cancer reliably in mice then I'll go and test it for humans," he said.
Hartwell believes the quest to diagnose cancer sooner and more effectively is one of the most promising areas in the fight against the disease. It may even prove more effective than the search for cancer-fighting drugs, he suggested.
"If we could detect the cancers early, we wouldn't need magic drugs. it would be sufficient for the most part to remove them by surgery," he said.
Robert McMillian writes for IDG News Service