PASADENA, Calif. -- Perhaps the earliest introduction of "nanotechnology" to the general public was the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, in which an entire submarine and crew were reduced to microscopic size and injected into a man's bloodstream in order to destroy a life-threatening blood clot.
While the idea of shrinking a submarine remains firmly grounded in science fiction, nanotechnology--manipulating single atoms to someday create useful molecular devices--is a science whose time is about to come.
For example, in the area of diagnosing disease, a new wave of nanotechnologies is being developed that will revolutionize virtually every aspect of medicine. On Wednesday, January 14, at 8:00 p.m., James Heath, the Elizabeth W. Gilloon professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech, and a leading nanosystems researcher, will present the background, the early successes, and some of the challenges that will be undertaken over the next couple of years. His talk, "Nanosystems Biology," is part of the 2003-2004 Earnest C. Watson Lecture Series at Caltech.
Imagine that a complete molecular-based diagnosis of, say, cancer, could be accomplished using just a few cells, at low cost, within seconds. With a drop of blood or with a low-risk outpatient biopsy procedure, a cancer patient could be correctly diagnosed, even in the very early stages of the disease, within minutes. This could literally revolutionize drug discovery and clinical treatment.
Such a breakthrough will come only when scientists coordinate the fields of nanotechnology with microfluidics and systems biology—in which a biological system is studied as a single unit. By merging recent advances in nanoscience and technology, it may be possible to carry out a systems biology analysis at the level of a single cell, and in real time. However, the experimental challenges are daunting. In response, says Heath, several groups from Caltech, UCLA, and the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, have come together to form the NanoSystems Biology Alliance to work on such problems.
Heath's lecture will take place in Beckman Auditorium, near Michigan Avenue south of Del Mar Boulevard, on Caltech's campus in Pasadena. Seating is available on a free, no-ticket-required, first-come, first-served basis. Caltech has offered the Watson Lecture Series since 1922, when it was conceived by the late Caltech physicist Earnest Watson as a way to explain science to the local community.