Fall 2008.
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New & Now: Fall 2008

Darkness Visible

Trains on Time

Vision Quest

Plastic War

Disappearing Doctors

Bad Business

Early Warning

Protective Paste


Early Warning

A device that amplifies light waves could revolutionize disease diagnostics.

Antigens and immunogens are key players in the body's never-ending struggle against illness, molecular foot soldiers whose complex maneuverings can tip the balance between sickness and health, life or death.

Scientists have long recognized that observing the activities of antigens and immunogens -- molecules that signal to our immune system that viruses, bacteria or other threatening toxins are on the march -- could lead to the early identification of disease. Such an outcome could, in turn, greatly speed the process of diagnosing and treating serious illnesses. As it now stands, however, the process is too cumbersome to be of much value, says Xudong "Sherman" Fan, an assistant professor of biological engineering at MU.

Fan explains that scientists now use color-coded, fluorescent molecular tags to track whether antibodies and antigens have bound to molecules and produced an immune response. An antibody, for example, might be labeled with a green tag and an antigen labeled with a red tag. If the green antibody has not bound to the red antigen, technicians will see only green. If they're bonding, only red.

In the early stages of infection or illness, however, only a few antigens will be available to reveal their true colors, thus defeating researchers' effort to use them to reveal nascent disease development. Fan is working on a solution.

He has invented a device, called an opto-fluidic ring resonator, or OFRR, that can amplify and clarify color changes. The OFRR, Fan says, works by circulating tagged light through a glass ring that reflects and strengthens light waves. The device increases sensitivity so much that even a single molecule of disease may be detectable.

"We know this may be a good approach—maybe even a revolutionary approach—but how much better we can do is still being tested," Fan says.

Fan has a long track record of success with similar technologies: He's already come up with an instrument that promises to detect cancer-associated proteins and DNA from just a small blood sample. If successful, he says, it could enhance cancer diagnostics while giving patients greater peace of mind. "Within one doctors visit, you could get results," he says. "You wouldn't have to send a sample to a pathologist's office and wait." The device will begin clinical trials later this year

Fan's work, published in peer-reviewed journals such as Optics Letters, Applied Physics Letters and Optics Express, has recently attracted the attention of the National Science Foundation, which conferred upon him one of its prestigious CAREER awards. Fan says the $400,000, five-year grant will provide him and his lab an opportunity to expand the scope and scale of their amplified light wave investigations.

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Published by the Office of Research.

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