The Next "Big" Thing is Small

Thanks to materials science, the phrase "Bigger is Better" is going the way of the dodo bird. Computers that once filled entire rooms, now rest pleasantly on our laps and phones that were tethered to the wall, now live comfortably in our pockets. It's all the result of people learning to work with materials on an increasingly smaller scale.

But portability isn't the only advantage of Small. In "Making Stuff: Smaller" we're exploring what becomes possible when the barrier of "too small to work with" is broken. For example, in medicine the ability to work with materials on a small scale is providing new and less invasive solutions to various medical conditions.

In the not too distant past, if a patient was suffering from a disease of the gastrointestinal tract, the only way to take a look inside the small intestine was through invasive methods. A patient would have to be sedated and a long tube called an endoscope would be inserted into the digestive tract to look for abnormalities. Now, thanks to Given Imaging's "PillCam® video capsule" a vitamin-sized capsule containing a small camera that's ingestible, visualization of abdominal disorders is far more pleasant!
(above: The PillCam Capsule is about the size of a vitamin and allows for non-invasive viewing of the GI tract. Photos Courtesy of Powderhouse Productions and Given Imaging)
A patient simply swallows the capsule and over a period of about eight hours it passes through the entire GI tract, taking two pictures per second (more than 50,000 images per procedure!). These pictures are transmitted to a data recorder the patient wears on their waist. It's a revolutionary system giving physicians the view inside the body they need to make their diagnosis, while allowing the patient to go about their business, undisturbed.

It's hard to believe, but there are even smaller medical technologies on the horizon that will...
...make vitamin sized PillCam seem huge by comparison! Dr. Michael Cima at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is currently working on creating a device the size of a grain of rice that could one-day aid in more effective diagnoses and monitoring of cancer!

At the moment biopsies are the standard tool for cancer diagnoses. While they are indeed accurate, the problem with them is that they only provide a glimpse of a tumor at one point in time. Dr. Cima's implant would remain behind in place of the tissue that had been sampled by the biopsy and would make it possible to monitor a tumors growth and how it responds to treatment.

Pogue and Cima.jpg(left: Dr. Michael Cima shows host David Pogue his implant. Photo Courtesy of Powderhouse Productions)

Here's how it works -The inside of the device is filled with water and magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles. The iron oxide nanoparticles specifically target and clump around molecules produced by the tumor. So when these target molecules enter the device through a semi permeable membrane, the iron oxide nanoparticles start clumping around them.

Inplant in hand2.jpg(right: The sensor is about the size of a grain of rice! - Photo Courtesy of Powderhouse Productions)

In every water molecule there are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O). Each of those hydrogen atoms has one proton in its nucleus.  Together, these protons behave like a tiny spinning magnet that can be detected using an MRI.  Inside Dr. Cima's device the magnetic field of the iron oxide nanoparticles interferes with that spinning magnet making the image on the MRI darker. When more target molecules enter the device, more iron oxide nanoparticles start clumping together and the image on the MRI becomes even darker.

Simply put, the bigger a tumor gets, the more target molecules it produces, and the more nanoparticle clumps will form inside the device. Using an MRI, Dr. Cima can measure how many clumps have formed by how dark the image is, and tell whether the tumor is growing or shrinking.

It's another amazing example of how small technology can make a big impact. And yet, it's not even close to how small our technology can get. In "Making Stuff: Smaller" we'll take you through the most amazing achievements in "Small" from the first portable time piece to molecule sized structures that may one day float through your bloodstream destroying cancer cells. Trust me, the next "BIG" thing is "small."

MAKING STUFF: Stronger, Smaller, Cleaner, Smarter will premiere Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9pm ET/PT on PBS

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