IBM Reveals Biotech Ambitions

Jeffrey Burt is a senior editor for eWEEK and contributor to TechWeekEurope

IBM scientists are developing a technology that will enable physicians and other researchers to quickly and easily read and analyse strands of DNA

IBM scientists are developing a chip that can easily and quickly read strands of DNA, a development that could lead to more personalised health care.

The goal of the research project, announced on 6 Oct, is to create the capability to analyse a person’s genome information for as little as $1,000, which could mean better diagnosis and treatment for patients.

“What is the next big thing in biotechnology?” Gustavo Stolovitzky, an IBM researcher on the project, asked in a video posted by IBM. “The answer is kind of simple, if you are in the field: You need to know how to sequence DNA fast and cheap.”

IBM researchers—from such fields as nanofabrication, microelectronics, physics and biology—are looking to do this through a silicon-based “DNA transistor.” The technique sends a DNA molecule through a 3-nanometer-wide hole—or “nanopore”—in a chip. As it’s squeezed through the nanopore, an electrical sensor reads the DNA and analyses the genetic data within.

A nanometer is about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

If physicians know a person’s individual genetic code, they can determine whether the person is predisposed to certain diseases, which treatments will work best and whether a particular patient will have an adverse reaction to medicine, according to IBM. It could also lead to faster discovery and testing of new products.

“Personalised medicine will become a reality,” Stolovitzky said.

The key challenge is finding a way to control the speed in which the DNA molecule travels through the nanopore, according to IBM researchers. They have created a multilayer metal/dielectric nano-structure that contains the nanopore and uses voltage between the metal layers to control the electric field in the nanopore.

The goal is to trap the DNA in the nanopore. Researchers believe that by turning these gate voltages on and off, they can slow the movement of the DNA through the nanopore at a rate—about one nucleotide per cycle—that would make DNA readable.

“We want to control the passing of DNA through the nanopore,” Stolovitzky said.

If successful, the project could lead to handheld devices that could easily and cheaply read and analyse DNA.

“The DNA transistor is one of those technologies that will, in the longer run, achieve sequencing very cheap and very fast,” Stolovitzky said, cautioning that there still is a lot of work to be done before IBM can say the project is a success.