Evolved Nanomaterials Sciences (ENS), a private nanotechnology start-up in which Harris & Harris (Nasdaq: TINY ) has an equity stake, announced last week that it was releasing a new technology it says would allow chemists to separate, screen, purify, and enrich chiral molecules at a much faster rate than existing technology.
If it works as promised, the development would be significant because many of today's leading drugs, including Pfizer's (NYSE: PFE ) Lipitor and Viagra, Merck's (NYSE: MRK ) Zocor, and GlaxoSmithKline's (NYSE: GSK ) Advair, are all chiral-based drugs. In fact, chiral drugs have been estimated to be one of the fastest-growing categories of pharmaceuticals.
The term chiral is based on the Greek word for hand, and it refers to the fact that many common molecules occur as a pair of two identical mirror-image forms -- much like your right and left hands appear to be identical.
The problem, however, is that the "right hand" and "left hand" molecules do not perform identically and, in some isolated instances, can have radically different effects on people.
Perhaps the best known -- and certainly among the most tragic examples -- was thalidomide. Used to prevent morning sickness in pregnant women, one of thalidomide's chiral molecules performed exactly as promised. Unfortunately, the other molecule, which was not screened out, caused terrible birth defects in babies born to the women using the drug.
Few chiral molecules, which are also called enantiomers, have such a dramatic effect. But if the wrong molecule does sneak into a drug, it can also pose dosing problems or lower its overall effectiveness.
Obviously, separating these different molecules is a critical step in both the drug development and the drug manufacturing process. The problem is that using today's existing technology, this is a difficult, slow, and costly process.
This is where ENS' new technology comes into play. By creating a tiny molecular imprint, the company has created a very refined molecular sieve that allows drug companies to rapidly and accurately separate the good molecules from the bad ones. You can think of it is as creating a super small glove that fits only the appropriate hand.
Because of proprietary reasons, it's unlikely that ENS will be able to publicly announce when Big Pharma companies have licensed its technology, but Harris & Harris investors have reason to be optimistic, because this separation technology -- by adding real value for the pharmaceutical industry -- could cause Harris & Harris to separate from other nanotech-related investments such as Altair Nanotechnologies (Nasdaq: ALTI ) and Nanophase (Nasdaq: NANX ) .
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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology, including Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. He owns stock in Harris & Harris. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.