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Microscopic Microscope
Jamais Cascio, 19 Apr 05

biochip.jpgThis is one of those inventions that sounds as if it was ripped from the pages of an overly-technical science fiction novel: an optical biochip, about the size of a cell, that uses lasers to analyze biological samples and then signal its findings. Researchers at the by UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council developed the technology as a way of making testing faster and more detailed.

The research team moved away from the idea that a microscope is something you have to look through to create optical biochips onto which scientists can place biological samples. Special fluorescent chemicals are then used together with tiny light emitting lasers to allow the scientists to analyse the cells or targets within the cells. Researchers can use this capability to examine cellular conditions for certain diseases or to develop new treatments by studying the way cells react to a drug.

The biochips also raise the possibility of a micro-laboratory, the size of a credit card, which would be able to perform medical diagnostics, improving patient treatment by reducing the number of hospital visits needed for tests.

We're moving quickly to a point where sophisticated biomedical analysis can be moved from the lab to the field -- that is, from a centralized system to a distributed system. The interesting and valuable aspect of technologies such as this optical biochip isn't just the new feats it specifically can accomplish, but the new paradigm it suggests. Going from centralized systems to peripheral systems has been revolutionary in nearly every instance, from computing to energy to politics; distribution doesn't just replicate the centralized model in multiple locations, it offers up entirely new -- and usually unanticipated -- opportunities.

Imagine, for example, home medical testing units ("the size of a credit card") able to run a variety of diagnostic tests on cheek swabs, smears of blood, urine, etc. In the traditional model, this information would be sent to one's doctor or hospital, which would then "control" the information (and the patient may not even be able to see the data being sent); the only real difference is that the test happens at home, instead of in a doctor's office. But why would it need to work like that? How about being able to send one's results to multiple locations for analysis, getting multiple "second opinions" simultaneously? As this all would happen over the net, there's no reason to be limited to one's local medical establishment. Hospitals outsource testing; why couldn't patients?

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