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Nanosensors to Lend a Helping Hand to Drug Manufacturers

Chemical engineers at MIT have made a discovery that could help pharmaceutical companies to not only manufacture drugs more efficiently, but it may also allow them to produce drugs in a way that is much safer than before.

Previously, scientists have shown that tiny, nanometer-sized sensors can be used to detect minute quantities of a substance. Now, researchers are trying to see if large arrays of nanosensors can be used to detect many different targets at once. These nanosensors are used to collect and transmit information on the nanoscale and have traditionally been used for science and medical purposes.

The researchers focused on arrays of billions of nanoscale sensors and found that they have certain unique properties that could aid in drug manufacturing. The researchers were able to characterize variations in the binding strength of antibody drugs, which could help to treat cancer. They were also able to monitor the structure of antibody molecules by using the sensors, which allowed the researchers to see if sugars were interfering with the proper function of the molecules. 

“This could help pharmaceutical companies figure out why certain drug formulations work better than others, and may help improve their effectiveness,” says Michael Strano, an MIT professor of chemical engineering and senior author of a recent paper describing the sensors in the journal ACS Nano

Strano and his colleagues were among the researchers that wanted to explore the unique properties that emerge from large arrays of sensors.

Through mathematical modeling and experimentation, Strano and his team discovered that uniform arrays can measure the distribution in binding strength of complex proteins; one example in particular is antibodies.

Since antibodies help the human body to fight off “foreign invaders,” scientists have been using them to treat cancer and other diseases. But in order for the antibodies to be effective, they have to bind to their target—and this doesn’t always happen with the manufacturing process that relies on non-human, engineered cells.

In order to make sure that the antibodies are effective in binding to their targets, drug companies use expensive and time consuming analytical processes to test them. The team from MIT believes that their sensor could assist this process by helping it to move along faster, allowing researchers to better monitor and control production, and by fine-tuning the process, thus producing a more consistent product. 

“You could use the technology to reject batches, but ideally you’d want to use it in your upstream process development to better define culture conditions, so then you wouldn’t produce spurious lots,” said Nigel Reuel, a graduate student at Strano’s lab.

The researchers also found that the sensors are excellent at measuring weak binding interactions.  Antibodies are coated with long sugar chains and these chains are necessary for drugs to be effective. However, they are hard to detect because they interact poorly with other molecules.

“What a nanosensor array can do is greatly expand the number of opportunities to detect rare binding events. You can measure what you would otherwise not be able to quantify with a single, larger sensor with the same sensitivity,” Strano says.

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