MIT chemical engineering professor Michael Strano has devoted a lot of lab time, resources, and postdocs to figuring out ways to measure and better understand the role of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule that exists in living cells, and while scientists know that it transfers information within the brain and helps coordinate bodily systems and functions such as the immune system, they’ve never really understood how nitric oxide works. They do know, though, that in cancerous cells, the nitric oxides levels are off, indicating that it has some role in the progression of cancer. In an attempt to learn more about that role, Strano and his lab have devised a measurement tool.
The tool is a nitric oxide-monitoring sensor that can remain under the skin of a living being for over a year. The sensor would specifically monitor inflammation, which produces nitric oxide. The sensor is made of carbon nanotubes, which are about one nanometer (one billionth of a meter — the average germ is about 1,000 nanometers) thick. A carbon nanotube sensor works when scientists wrap them with a molecule that attaches to a specific target. When the binding occurs, the natural fluorescence of the carbon tube gets brighter or dimmer.