Released into the circulatory system, an army of these semiconductor crystals, each 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, searches diligently, cell to cell. Armored in a coating designed to protect them from the body’s destructive enzymes, these quantum dots have received orders, in the form of conjugated antibodies, to find cancer cells bearing matching antigens.
     “And then the lights go on!” exclaims nanotechnology expert Shuming Nie, a researcher in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory and Georgia Tech and in Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute.
     Under a simple laser light, the dots have begun to glow with fluorescent colors, clearly visible through the skin of the laboratory mouse. Dr. Nie grins excitedly, like a kid with a new video game. He believes what he is seeing will change the outcomes for men diagnosed with prostate cancer.
     The dots indicate the location of prostate tumor cells hidden deep in the mouse’s body. Nie has labeled the quantum dots with tiny permutations of colors, each one a probe for a specific gene or protein. Ordinary imaging procedures can use only one dye at a time. Theoretically, says Nie, quantum dots could simultaneously tag hundreds or even thousands of different proteins.
     That means the quantum dot army can send back massive amounts of intelligence about which genes and proteins are hidden in a patient’s prostate cancer, far more information than is now available from tissue analysis. Knowing the precise fingerprint of a person’s cancer makes it possible to individualize treatment. The next battalion of nanoparticles can deliver a controlled amount of the ideal drug mixture directly to the cells, before yet another glowing group arrives to monitor the effectiveness of the therapy.
     There’s more down the road. Emory researchers also are developing ways quantum dots can detect cancer-related genes and proteins in blood and saliva, in hopes of turning nanotechnology into a noninvasive screening method for cancer that has not yet been diagnosed.

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Helping write the road map
Shuming Nie predicted in a 1998 Science article that the first applications of nanotechnology—building structures as small as 10 atoms—would be in medicine, not electronics, as most engineers believed. He was right. Today, nanomedicine research is an NIH priority, especially for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
     In 2005, the NIH designated Emory and Georgia Tech as a national center for nanotechnology (one of only seven) and awarded $20 million to help Nie and his colleagues move their quantum dots from the laboratory to application in human patients. This funding came on the heels of other major NIH awards, including one for $11.5 million to Emory and Georgia Tech, to Gang Bao and his colleagues, who are using nanostructured probes to detect dangerous cardiovascular plaques before they can rupture, blocking vessels and causing heart attack or stroke.
Ask questions:
> NOURISH RESEARCH SEEDS. A $5,000 gift of “seed money” can help develop a novel idea—about why and how prostate cancer develops, for example—to the point where the NIH or other agencies will fund the work with $5 million or more.
> ENDOW A CHAIR. Actually, research superstars don’t sit down all that much, but what makes a $2 million gift to sponsor a chair such a powerful recruitment and research tool is the chair’s status (usually named for the donor) and the program or laboratory support and protected time the chair provides. Chairs are available in the schools of medicine, nursing, and public health, and in the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
> HELP SMALL PARTICLES FIGHT BIG PROBLEMS. A gift of $110,000 would fund a post-doctoral researcher in nanotechnology for two years. Another $40,000 would provide all the needed supplies during that time to expand the Winship Cancer Institute’s effort to find new ways to diagnose and treat breast, lung, and other cancers with this extraordinary new technology.
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