Medical technology: Nanotechnology provides a way to detect potentially dangerous blood clots, without the need for tiny submarines

Medical technology: Nanotechnology provides a way to detect potentially dangerous blood clots, without the need for tiny submarines

Nov 30th 2013 | From the print edition

ONE of the dreams of nanotechnologists—those who try to engineer machines mere billionths of a metre across—is to build medical devices that can circulate in the bloodstream. This aspiration often prompts ridicule, frequently accompanied by a still from “Fantastic Voyage”, a film made in the 1960s about a team of doctors in a submarine that had been miniaturised with them inside it, so they could destroy a blood clot which threatened to kill a scientist who had been working behind the iron curtain.Well, titter ye not. For although Sangeeta Bhatia’s nanoscale devices are not really submarines, are certainly not crewed by Raquel Welch and do not actually destroy blood clots, they do go around the bloodstream finding such clots—and report back what they have found, so that destruction can take place if necessary.

Dr Bhatia is a bioengineer and physician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was impressed by the extraordinary sensitivity of modern urine testing, which can detect conditions ranging from diabetes and pregnancy to breast and brain cancer. But she noticed that one thing it cannot detect is clots attached to the walls of blood vessels. Nor is there an effective blood test for such clots.

That matters, because if a clot breaks free from its site of formation and lodges somewhere critical, it can kill. A clot in the coronary artery induces a heart attack. In a pulmonary artery, a clot causes a pulmonary embolism; in an artery in the brain, it causes a stroke. Dr Bhatia thought she might be able to design something that detects and reports the presence of clots and, as she recently outlined in the journal ACS Nano, she has succeeded.

What Dr Bhatia’s clot-detector is actually detecting are not the clots themselves, but an enzyme called thrombin, which induces clotting and is thus an indicator of the presence of clots. Her “submarines” are tiny particles of iron oxide (though not so tiny that they pass through the kidney’s filters into the urine, and are lost). They are coated with small fragments of protein, called peptides, specially chosen because they react with thrombin. That, however, is not enough—because there is no way to tell from the outside whether such a reaction has taken place. To manage this Dr Bhatia attached reporter chemicals to the free ends of the peptides. When a peptide binds to a thrombin molecule the reporter is released. And the reporter, unlike the iron-oxide particle, is small enough to pass into the urine, where it can be detected by a simple test.

When tried out in mice, this idea worked perfectly. The urine of animals with clots in their lungs turned orange when tested, as it was supposed to do. That of clot-free animals remained unchanged. As for the iron oxide particles, these slowly dissolve in the bloodstream in a way that should cause no damage.

No trials have yet been carried out on people. But if such tests work and the procedure proves safe, then it might be used to give early warning, in those thought at risk of developing internal clots, that such clots have indeed developed. They can then be attacked with clot-busting drugs before they can break away and do serious harm.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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