13 May 2008

MicroArrays in Research: A Silent Revolution

A Micro-array is a potent tool of biological discovery, first used to study genetic variation, and now rapidly being adapted to a wide range of biochemical research. Briefly, micro-arrays incorporate a large number of biochemical probes onto a single chip, to allow up to thousands of simultaneous tests to be performed at once. Since humans are unable to process such large amounts of data quickly, micro-array data is processed by special "bio-informatics" data analysis packages. These tools together are driving a revolutionary change in what is possible to learn about complex biological systems.

Take embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Until recently, no one understood how ESCs could maintain the potential to develop into any cell type in the body. Recently, Israeli scientists used micro-arrays to track gene expression of ESCs as they developed into specialised cell types. They learned that ESCs must undergo complex patters of gene silencing to become particular types of cells and tissues.

Other scientists are using micro-arrays to track complex protein cell signaling pathways. Researchers at UT Austin have developed a microarray for testing proteins in saliva--for rapid, noninvasive diagnosis of heart attacks.

Scientists at Invitrogen Corp (NASDAQ:IVGN), have developed a micro-RNA (miRNA) microarray to test for the presence of the short RNA sequences that can influence tumour formation--as an early test for cancer, or even cancer potential.

Scientists in New York and Wisconsin may have stumbled upon a completely new approach to understanding Alzheimer's disease based upon results from microarrays looking at gene expression in the brains of specially bred mice and flies.

Scientists at the Cambridge Mass. startup Quanterix have developed high capacity protein testing micro-chips using sample wells only 2.5 microns in diameter, that are capable of detecting single molecules of a protein in a person's blood. Such chips should bring medicine closer to the holy grail of a quick, comprehensive "snapshot" of all the proteins active in a patient's system at any one time. (via Kurzweilai.net)

An entire field of biology, "Systems Biology" has grown up around such sophisticated tools of data acquisition--combined with complex tools of data analysis. These tools combined with the expertise of human minds to identify the significant findings among the masses of data, provide unprecedented power to biological researchers who are trying to eliminate some of the most burdensome diseases of modern life.

Update 14May08: Brian Wang has more on diagnostic microarrays here.

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