Image: Hand-held device
Researchers suggest that a hand-held device, similar to the mockup pictured here, could be used to monitor the molecular signals of health and disease within human cells - even in the cramped quarters of a spaceship.

In the movie “Star Trek IV,” the irascible Dr. McCoy cures a kidney patient in minutes merely by doling out a pill from the 23rd century. NASA and the National Cancer Institute aren’t promising anything like that, but they are working to develop microscopic sensors capable of entering human cells to detect — and even treat — cancer and other diseases.

It certainly sounds like science fiction, admits Carol Dahl, who heads the cancer institute’s Unconventional Innovations Program. But then again, folks in the 1950s might have regarded the idea behind the present-day Internet in the same way.

“The boundary between what might be construed as science fiction in one part of people’s lifetime and the reality of a future time might be sometimes difficult to distinguish,” she said.

The cancer institute and the space agency plan to push harder against those boundaries, under the terms of a memorandum of understanding being signed Thursday in Washington by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and the institute’s director, Richard Klausner. The agreement marks the formal beginning of a collaboration on biomedical technology, for use by future astronauts as well as patients on Earth.

“We see that we have an overlapping set of technological objectives,” Dahl said. Her program already is funding millions of dollars worth of research on ways to recognize the warning signs of cancer on the molecular level. If those microscopic sensors can enter human cells and pick up the initial chemical traces of trouble, they might be able to kill off the cancer on a cell-by-cell basis — reducing the need for sterner measures such as radiation, surgery or full-bore chemotherapy.

That dream of cancer researchers happens to mesh with NASA’s dream as well.

“The information that they’re going to derive is going to be applicable to many other disease types,” said Louis Ostrach, a NASA researcher in life sciences who is helping manage the collaboration, “specifically those types of disease where the genetic blueprint is involved, because it’s the genetic blueprint that creates proteins. It’s those proteins and the genetic blueprints themselves that have a signature, and that signature can either be healthy, or it can be indicative of an abnormal process.”

Detecting and treating disease on a cell-by-cell basis would be particularly important during long-duration space flight — such as a mission to Mars.

“How are they going to maintain the health of the astronauts during that mission?” Dahl asked rhetorically. “You can’t envision that they’ll be able to bring a full hospital infrastructure along.”

Instead, Ostrach said, astronauts might use a nasal spray, pill or patch that would treat diseases even before any symptoms became apparent.

“From the NASA perspective, we would like to use the molecular-based disease detection and treatment systems by developing microscopic-size ‘nano-explorers,’ and being able to introduce these in a non-intrusive way,” he said.

Real-world research
That may sound like vintage 23rd-century talk, but researchers at the University of Michigan Center for Biologic Nanotechnology are already testing such devices in tissue culture cells, under a $4.4 million, three-year contract with the cancer institute.

Image: Dendrimers
This photomicrograph shows bunches of polymer spheres, known as dendrimers. A single dendrimer (indicated by the small arrow) can be seen near a cluster of dendrimers bound to plasmid DNA (broad arrow). The scale bar at the bottom of the image indicates 50 billionths of a meter.
The polymer-based spheres, known as dendrimers, measure as little as 3 nanometers (billionths of a meter) across, said Dr. James Baker Jr., the center’s director. The spheres can find their way through the membrane of a human cell and deposit a type of DNA that makes the cell glow green.

“All the component pieces work and have been tested,” Baker said. “What we’re doing is putting the pieces together in a multifunctional device.”

The initial tests have been so encouraging that Baker expects to move on to animal studies sooner than expected. “We’ll be happy if in the next year we can start to image tumors in experimental animals,” he said.

Baker speculates that once the technology is ready for prime time, diseased cells could set off a telltale glow in a patch of skin, or a molecular signal that could be picked up by a miniaturized magnetic resonance imager (tricorder, anyone?). Diabetics could have their blood sugar levels monitored and automatically corrected ... problems with blood flow could trigger the release of drugs to open up blood vessels.

“It will be a remarkable accomplishment when it gets done,” Baker said. “It will change how people interact with their physicians.”

Looking ahead
The Unconventional Innovations Program is also funding research to define the molecular signatures of tumor cells and develop other compact detection devices, including a biosensor based on carbon nanotubes. The program awarded $11.3 million worth of three-year contracts during fiscal year 1999 and is due to award $18 million more this year and in the next fiscal year, according to Dahl.

She said the new relationship with NASA will naturally build upon her program, but she anticipated that the collaboration “will likely spill out into other programs as well.” Ostrach said NASA as well as the cancer institute is already funding work at “extremely productive laboratories where the future developments in these areas are being identified and exploited now.”

Ostrach indicated that it won’t take until the 23rd century for the collaboration to bear fruit.

“We certainly are going to look forward to promoting the breakthroughs that we need to develop this biomolecular nanoscale health-care concept within the 15- to 20-year time frame,” he said. The International Space Station, which is due for completion in the 2004-2006 time frame, would certainly be used as a testbed, he said.

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