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  • New Biosensor Could Target, Kill Cancer Cells
Oct 2006
SOCORRO, N.M., Oct. 12, 2006 -- A highly sensitive nucleotide sensor has been developed that uses the special light-emitting properties of some nanoparticles in analyzing and identifying individual components of single strands of DNA and RNA. Its creators said the sensor could be used to detect genetic-based diseases and possibly even target and kill cancerous cells and tissue.

PengZhang.jpgThe nucleotide sensor design, created by scientists at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech), is touted as being "versatile and easy to implement" in DNA/RNA research studies and analyses in molecular biology, genetics and molecular medicine.

New Mexico Tech chemistry assistant professor Peng Zhang, biology professor Snezna Rogelj and students Khoi Nguyen and Damon Wheeler are the university researchers cited as co-authors of the article, "Design of a Highly Sensitive and Specific Nucleotide Sensor Based on Photon Upconverting Particles", to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The design and development of the novel sensor is based on using a type of nanomaterial, or materials in the nanometer (billionths of a meter) range, with unique "photon upconversion" properties, meaning that these nanomaterials emit light at shorter wavelengths than the light to which they have been exposed.

"In a proof-of-concept experiment, the designed nucleotide sensor displays high sensitivity and specificity, with the capability of differentiating a single-base mismatch in a 26-base nucleotide target," said Zhang. "This is an important finding in relation to the study and treatment of many genetic-based diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia, which are due to a single-base mismatch on just one base protein."

The researchers applied proven techniques of combining biocompatible nanoparticles with DNA strands to further synthesize photon-upconverting nanoparticles for specific biosensing applications.

"Once such upconverting nanoparticles are prepared, their surfaces can be easily modified to be able to bind to certain proteins or biomolecules of interest," Zhang said. "In addition, because most non-target materials used in the study do not possess upconversion properties, an enhanced signal-to-noise ratio is expected when these phosphor nanoparticles are used for sensing, imaging and luminescent reporting."

Zhang said he and his fellow research team members are hoping to make the technology they have developed even more "useful and meaningful" by soon adapting it to detect and kill cancer cells.

"I am very excited about the potential for this new application, especially since the preliminary phase of this study has shown that we can identify cancer cells," Zhang said. "The next step will be to modify these nanoparticle sensors to allow them to be used in photodynamic therapy and actually kill cancer cells with them."

The continuing research study being conducted by Zhang and his colleagues is funded through startup financial and logistical support provided by New Mexico Tech. For more information, visit:

A small object that behaves as a whole unit or entity in terms of it’s transport and it’s properties, as opposed to an individual molecule which on it’s own is not considered a nanoparticle.. Nanoparticles range between 100 and 2500 nanometers in diameter.  
A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
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