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Interview: Happiness on a chip
13 July 2007
Yoshinobu Baba tells Celia Clarke how nanotechnology could measure our health and happiness.
Yoshinobu Baba is a professor of chemistry at Nagoya University and a director for nanobiotechnology research at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan. He is also a member of the steering committee for the International Symposium on Micro Total Analysis Systems (microTAS). His research focuses on using nanobiotechnology to solve biological problems in areas from genomics to personalised medicine.
Why did you choose to work in chemical biology?
After this, I became involved in genomic research based on analytical technologies. I was doing capillary electrophoresis for the separation of DNA molecules. Also, I was interested in and became involved in the genomic project in Japan.
What is the focus of your current research?
Our work is mainly in nanotechnology or nanoscience. We develop new nanomaterials and nanostructures using semiconductor, nanofabrication and chemical technologies. We aim to make new structures with bio- and medical applications. To achieve this we must select the appropriate nanostructures for DNA, protein or cell analysis.
For several years we have been applying nanotechnology to disease diagnosis, especially the detection of biomarkers, SNP [single nucleotide polymorphism] analysis and DNA sequencing. Now, we work with medical groups to develop very-early-stage cancer detection based on single cell or biomolecule analysis.
Also, I am collaborating with systems biologists who would like to analyse expression profiles of genes from yeast. For this we need to develop chip structures for analysing 6000 genes in a single run, in parallel. At the moment, the scale of analysis of genetic materials is still small - even a 1000 samples is large for the field. Yet humans have 20 000 genes and maybe 100 000 proteins. We have so many challenges.
Why is nanotechnology important for biology?
In situ, in vivo real time single molecule analysis is an important goal. The very small number of expressed proteins can be a key issue for cancer and other diseases. To look at interactions between small numbers of molecules, very small volumes are necessary but conventional technologies use large volumes. Using large volumes it is easy to detect single molecules, for example single molecule DNA or single molecule proteins. But if we want to detect interactions between proteins, proteins and DNA or molecules and cells, we need to make very small volumes or very small structures because biological reactions occur at micro- to nanomolar concentrations. Chip technology means we can use very small volumes, making nanotechnology key for this kind of work.
How far are we away from personalised and predictive medicine?
Personalised medicine has a wide variety of goals. For example, we can already use the detection of SNPs to predict side reactions of drugs. But SNPs are only a small part of personalised medicine. The real personalised medicine will take 10-20 years to reach. At present, we have no systems biology. We need an expression profile of all genes and all expressed proteins, all modifications of proteins and all other reactions in the cell. We need many technologies to do that.
You are a member of the steering committee for microTAS. What are the aims of microTAS?
MicroTAS is interdisciplinary so we encourage interaction between different disciplines, including the semiconductor, electronics, chemistry, biology, medicine and electrophysics fields. We organise microTAS meetings to bring together different people to meet the same research target.
We think the microchip is key for targeting the biological or medical fields so we encourage microTAS researchers towards these goals. Also, the technology is branching out and is applicable to synthesis, environmental and food analysis, to name a few. Computer chips are now in all electronic devices, including cars. Hopefully, microTAS will be such a basic kind of technology. Recently electronics and pharmaceutical companies have been involved in microTAS meetings. We'd like to expand to include people in industrial fields including the car and metal industries.
What's the next step for nanobiotechnology?
The aging population is increasing. Ten years from now 25% of the Japanese population will be over 65. So we need to make older people feel happier. The control of disease means happiness for some people and we can develop measurements of health and control the disease. But we have no technology to measure the happiness. And the definition of happiness is different for each of us so we need a personalised happiness measurement. That is an important target.
Yoshinobu Baba's homepage
at Nagoya University
External links will open in a new browser window
Bio-sensing on a chip with compact discs and nanofibers
Mari Tabuchi, Kazuyoshi Kobayashi, Masayuki Fujimoto and Yoshinobu Baba, Lab Chip, 2005, 5, 1412
Also of interest
Micro TAS 2007 Conference