Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have demonstrated a sensor made of nanotubes that can be implanted under the skin for an extended period of time to monitor the presence of nitric oxide, which is caused by inflammation.
Nitric oxide (NO) molecules in living cells carry messages within the brain and coordinate immune system functions. In many cancerous cells, levels are perturbed, but very little is known about how NO behaves in both healthy and cancerous cells.
"Nitric oxide has contradictory roles in cancer progression, and we need new tools in order to better understand it," said Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. "Our work provides a new tool for measuring this important molecule, and potentially others, in the body itself and in real time."
The sensors could also be adapted to detect other molecules, including glucose. Strano's team is now working on sensors that could be implanted under the skin of diabetic patients to monitor their glucose or insulin levels, eliminating the need to take blood samples.
In operation, the sensors take advantage of carbon nanotubes' natural fluorescence by coupling them to a molecule that binds to a specific target. When the target is bound, the tubes' fluorescence brightens or dims.
Researchers shine a near-infrared laser on sensors in the body, producing a near-infrared fluorescent signal, which distinguishes between nanotubes and other background fluorescence.
Researchers are also working on adapting the technology to detect glucose. In this case a sensor monitors glucose in real time and enables an insulin pump to deliver insulin as needed.
The research was funded by grants from Sanofi-Aventis, government health organizations, private grants and the National Science Foundation.
The sensor is described in the Nov. 3 issue of Nature Nanotechnology.
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