For years, some of nanotechnology's more enthusiastic boosters have talked about the possibility of "nanobots" coursing through our veins and ridding our bodies of artery-clogging plaques and malignant cancer cells. To help conjure up the possibilities of nanotechnology, the mainstream press often latches onto to the easily digestible -- and much more visually pleasing -- vision of Raquel Welch in Fantastic Voyage being miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a prominent scientist to melt a deadly blood clot.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of both nanobot and Raquel Welch fans alike, both scenarios are a ways off, I'm sorry to report. This is not to say that nanotechnology isn't going to play a role in addressing the likes of heart disease, blood clots, and cancer. It is. It's just that the reality is going to be much less sexy than a tiny Raquel Welch in a tight wetsuit going into our bodies.
Earlier this week, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, announced that they had invented the "nanofluidic" transistor. The researchers went on to predict that just as the electronic transistor has become the main workhorse of microprocessors, the nanofluidic transistor will anchor the next generation of molecular processors.
Normally, I would simply file away an academic news release such as this because it's not close enough to commercial viability to warrant investor attention. I made an exception for this report in part because the lead researcher was Peidong Yang. Yang, in addition to his impressive academic credentials, also happens to be the scientific co-founder of Nanosys, which despite pulling its much-heralded IPO last summer remains one of the leading bellwether companies for nanotechnology and is a potential Rule Breaker.
The announcement also lends further credence to reports that Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) is preparing to make a serious assault on the health-care diagnostic field by redesigning lab-on-a-chip technology to use technologies such as nanofluidics and nanowires and thus challenge companies such as Agilent (NYSE: A ) and Affymetrix (Nasdaq: AFFX ) .
Advances like the nanofluidic transistor, because it uses molecules to process information and can be manufactured using the same technology that produces today's integrated circuits, just might give patients an affordable and convenient way to access reams of valuable biomolecular information to improve their health.
In fact, the technology could potentially be so sensitive that someday soon it might be able to sense a single molecule. And that's nothing to sneeze at, especially if that molecule can offer a clue to help diagnose an impending heart attack, a wandering blood clot, or a growing tumor that much sooner.
Such an advance may lack the fantastic voyage-like quality that nanobot and Raquel Welch fans have long dreamed about, but it should be enough to keep investors dreaming about the world of new possibilities that nanotechnology promises.
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Jack Uldrich has been accused by teachers and friends alike of thinking small since grade school. He is the author of The Next Big Thing Is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. He also owns shares of Intel. The Fool has a disclosure policy.