Elements of the smart economy – Nanobiotechnology


Politicians everywhere love to talk about the “smart economy” as an important element in the effort to pull their economies out of recession. Nowhere is this more true than in Ireland and across Europe there is a determination to create “the most dynamic competitive knowledge-based economy in the world”. So what exactly is the smart economy and can it really help solve the problems caused by the world wide banking crisis?

There are a number of elements that make up the smart economy. The two things they have in common are dependence on cutting edge research in high quality third level institutions and collaboration with industry and with other institutions across Europe. This series of articles will look at some of those elements, beginning with nanobiotechnology.

As its name suggests, this new technology represents the convergence of a number disciplines. Nanotechnology is about molecular scale or even atomic scale devices involving films, tubes or wires less than 100 millionths of a millimetre in thickness. Nanobiotechnology deals with nano-scale devices that can be used in biotechnology applications.

The Tyndall National Institute based in University College Cork is a world leading research centre for several areas of nanotechnology, including nanobiotechnology. It works in close collaboration with other institutions across Europe on a number of projects, including one announced in the first week of October 2010 which is aimed at designing an electronic nose that can detect cancer.

It has been established for some time that dogs are able to detect cancers in humans based on the smell of breath. More recently it has been shown that the urine of mice with lung cancer smells differently from that of healthy mice. It is hoped that this knowledge will make it possible for chemical analysis of urine to be used as a diagnostic tool to detect lung cancer in humans.

In 2009 it was reported that researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology had used chemically treated carbon nanotubes to create a device that can discriminate between the breath of a healthy person and that of someone with lung cancer. Meanwhile researchers in Italy used a commercially produced device to show that breath samples from patients with different types of cancer exuded different gases.

Now researchers from Spain, France, Italy and UK, together with others at the Tyndall Institute, are working on the creation of a versatile electronic nose called BOND (Bioelectronic Olfactory Neuron Device). The project unites nanotechnology, bio-science and information technology in creating a device that it is hoped could be used not only in healthcare but also in agriculture, food, environmental protection or security.

Participation in such projects helps propel Ireland to the forefront of nanobiotechnology, a key innovative technology capable of creating new jobs and boosting the Irish smart economy according to Dr Vladimir Ogurtsov, Tyndall PI coordinating development of smart nanotransducers in this project.


Sniffing out Cancer at Early Stages, Physorg.com, 27 January 2010, accessed 11 October 2010

Nanosensor Arrays “Smell” Cancer, Physorg.com, 27 April 2009, accessed 11 October 2010

Electronic Nose to Detect Disease, Press Release from University College Cork, accessed 11 October 2010