Over the past five decades, ORNL researchers have devised large instruments, compact analyzers, and small chips to diagnose or prevent human diseases and disorders.
In 1950 an ORNL team led by physicist P. R. Bell invented an improved scintillation spectrometer that measured the number and intensity of light flashes arising from phosphors in proportion to the radiation striking these crystals. Multichannel analyzers electronically recorded these flashes, enabling rapid anal-ysis of beta and gamma radiation energies.
In 1956 Bell's team found ways to incorporate electron-ic computers in medical scan-ners to more precisely highlight tumors that had taken up radioisotopes, making intrusive surgery unnecessary for cancer detection. Commercial versions of these ORNL-developed imaging machines were used at major medical centers throughout the world to locate cancerous tumors, leading to treatments that extended patients' lives.
In 1961, with funding from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the National Institutes of Health, an ORNL team led by Norman Anderson found a medical application for centrifuge technology used to produce enriched uranium for nuclear reactor fuel. The researchers demonstrated that rapidly spinning centrifuges, which separate substances into molecular constituents according to size and density, could purify vaccines, removing foreign proteins that can cause side effects in immunized patients. By 1967, commercial zonal centrifuges based on the ORNL invention produced safer vaccines for millions of people.
Guided by Anderson, Charles Scott and other ORNL researchers devised portable centrifugal fast analyzers in the late 1960s and 1970s that were used in medical clinics across the nation. Whirling at high speeds, these analyzers assayed components of blood, urine, and other body fluids in minutes, recording the data for medical diagnoses.
The best known of these machines was the Laboratory's GeMSAEC, funded jointly by the NIH's General Medical Sciences Division and AEC. Using a rotor that spun 15 transparent tubes past a light beam, GeMSAEC displayed the results on an oscilloscope and fed the data into a computer, completing 15 medical analyses in the time it previously took for one. Medical analyzers based on this invention were used in many U.S. clinics.
In the 1970s and 1980s ORNL's Carl Burtis invented a portable blood rotor, which employed the newest technology to improve upon the GeMSAEC concept. This compact analyzer used a variety of reagents that react with blood constituents in the presence of a light beam. It was designed to provide clinicians and veterinarians with rapid and simultaneous measurements of blood constituents in both humans and animals. The technology was licensed in 1992 to Abaxis Corporation, which still manufactures point-of-care blood analyzers based on the technology.
A nonsurgical laser technique for determining whether esophageal tumors are benign or cancerous was developed in the 1990s by ORNL's Tuan Vo Dinh and Bergein Overholt and Masoud Panjehpour, both of the Thompson Cancer Survival Center in Knoxville.
This optical biopsy sensorwhich uses an endoscope, optical fibers, laser light, and algorithm to gather and compare fluorescence patterns in the esophagus (which differ for normal and malignant tissue)has been tested in 1000 samples from 200 Thompson patients. In 98% of the tests the results of the optical and surgical biopsies agreed. ORNL has licensed the optical biopsy technique to Oak Ridge Instant Cancer Test of Nashville.
Vo-Dinh, Alan Wintenberg, and others devised an advanced multifunctional biochip system that someday could diagnose a range of diseases quickly in a doctor's office. This technology has been licensed to HealthSpex of Oak Ridge.
Improved versions of the "lab on a chip" devised by ORNL's Mike Ramsey in the early 1990s are being commercialized by Caliper Technologies. The matchbox-size chips contain several channelsthinner than human hairthat connect reservoirs, all of which are carved into miniature glass plates, using microfabrication technologies. Chips are available for analyses of DNA, RNA, proteins, and cells. Caliper also is marketing devices for high-throughput experimentation directed at drug discovery. Caliper posted 2001 sales of nearly $30 million, a 59% increase over the previous year.
Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and External Relations