Innovations at a centre in IISc are bringing the pathology lab closer to the individual

A moat isn't something you’d typically expect to find around a research centre, but then the micron-scale operations at the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE) at the Indian Institute of Science, need certain extreme buffers against the reverberations of urban life.

Such devices of the future are engineered within the centre’s ‘vibration proof’ nanofabrication facility, as: microscopic submarines that course through the blood stream; low cost graphene sensors that can detect pathogens, and a ‘vibrations test’ of diseased cells that could become a vital supplement to chemical tests.

And these innovations among others will, bit by bit, bring the pathology lab closer to the patient, the researchers here believe.

Assistant Professor at CeNSE, Ambarish Ghosh has already demonstrated in papers in Nano Letters and Physical Review Letters that microscopic glass ‘nano voyagers’ can be precisely manoeuvred through water using an external magnetic field. He is now coaxing the device to travel through the blood stream.

“There is huge potential in these devices to deliver drugs to specific tissues. Cancer drugs for instance, should ideally be delivered precisely to metastatic tissues rather than impact healthy ones.”

But the enormous challenges of getting a 0.5 micron thin object to negotiate thickly packed blood cells required an equally large collaborative operation. “We needed a non toxic material that can withstand the corrosiveness of blood and a device that is strong enough to push through blood cells.”

The outcome of years of collaborative research with physicists, optical engineers, chemists, biologists and material scientists is a microscopic glass screw with a bioprotective ferrite coat, and one that can be controlled by a rotating magnetic field. One of the most promising applications for this would be in the treatment of breast cancer, Dr Ghosh believes.

In an adjacent lab, Professor Navakanta Bhat works with graphene, “one of the most exciting nano materials.” In the latest issue of journal Sensors and Actuators he shows how graphene can make low cost and disposable electrical sensors to detect pathogens such as E coli .

A simple sensor made of a thin plastic strip and functionalised graphene could replace more expensive silicon sensors or optical techniques to diagnose disease.

This, he says will cut costs of diagnosis ten fold and revolutionise the way understaffed and ill-equipped public health centres work. “This technique could later be developed to even detect markers for diabetes such as glycated haemoglobin or micro albumin,” Prof Bhat told The Hindu .

CeNSE Chairman, Rudra Pratap is fashioning another genre of diagnostic devices based on nano technology, devices that detect diseased cells by their ‘vibration signatures.’ Mechano diagnostic tests such as this, could provide vital corroborations to chemical diagnosis, he says.

Be they propellers or sensors, nano based devices have the potential to “alter the field of diagnosis considerably,” he says. “These are things of the future. What we are working on here are the first breakthroughs.” While a huge amount of engineering is required before they become products, “the pathology lab is slowly but surely coming closer to the individual,” says Prof. Pratap.