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Space and cancer agencies collaborate on nanoscale sensors
Edward R. Winstead


The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and has awarded seven researchers a total of $11 million to develop microscopic devices that detect, diagnose, and treat disease inside the human body. The project goal is to develop nanoscale (one-billionth of a meter) sensors that, once inside the body, recognize molecular changes associated with disease and relay sensory information to computers outside the body. These minimally invasive devices could enter the body as a pill or through a nasal spray or skin patch.

NASA is developing the technology in a partnership with the US National Cancer Institute, which is interested in sensors that can detect the first signs of a tumor. Genomic tools have revealed the molecular signatures of certain common cancers in recent years, but new tools are needed to turn this information into medically useful technologies. Perhaps the same sensor that monitors an astronaut's health during three years in space could also detect cancerous changes in patients at risk for the disease.

The two agencies have collaborated on more than 20 research projects in the past decade. A few years ago, cancer researchers used a NASA technology to study the growth of human prostrate and breast cancer tissues outside the body for extended periods of time. The NASA technology, called a bioreactor, was developed to grow human tissue in space.

After the new partnership was announced in April, the agencies received 53 research proposals. These were peer-reviewed by experts on nanoscale technologies, bioinformatics, molecular medicine, and related fields. The investigators whose projects were selected are listed here in alphabetical order:

Mark G. Allen, Ph.D.
Physical Sciences, Inc.
Andover, MA
"Photonic Technology for Early Detection of Human Disease"

Sanford Asher, Ph.D.
Department of Chemistry
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA
"Development of an in-vivo Sensing Technology for Cancer Signatures"

James R. Baker, Jr., Ph.D.
Center for Biologic Nanotechnology
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
"Biosensors for Real-time Monitoring of Radiation Induced Biologic Effects in Space"

Stephen A. Boppart, M.D., Ph.D.
Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, IL
"A Nonlinear Optical Coherence Tomography System for Biomolecular Detection and Intervention"

Donald W. Landry, M.D., Ph.D.
Department of Medicine
Columbia University
New York, NY
"Translation of Disease Markers into Bioluminescent Signals"

James F. Leary, Ph.D.
Biomedical Engineering Center
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX
"Nanoparticle Delivery of Repair Enzymes for Radiation Protection/DNA Repair"

Timothy M. Swager, Ph.D.
Department of Chemistry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA
"Photonic Technologies for Noninvasive Detection, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Cancer"

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Joint NASA/NCI research to develop sensors for health monitoring inside the human body. Press release, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Washington, DC (November 21, 2001).

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