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Tiny GEMs, big insights

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  • Shape-shifting probe is capable of sensitive, high-resolution remote biological sensing
  • Geometrically encoded magnetic sensors change the shape of the subcutaneous monitor
  • Probe frees researchers from optical constraints

They’re only 1/100th the width of a human hair, but these little sensors are kind of a big deal. Dubbed geometrically encoded magnetic sensors (GEMs), they have the ability to change shape once inside human tissue – and they provide greater accuracy than current technology.

Shape-shifter. Researchers from the NIST and NIH have demonstrated a new probe about one-hundredth as wide as a human hair that changes shape in response to local biochemical conditions and radio frequencies. Video courtesy Sean Kelley and NIST Physical Measurement Laboratory.

Smaller than a single red blood cell, the sensors are sandwiches made of magnetic discs and expansive gel. The gel can shrink or expand depending on the chemical environment it enters, and this shape tells researchers outside what’s going on under the surface. Understanding local pH levels can help doctors hone in on the early signs of pathology.

Since the GEMs operate via radio frequencies not impeded by biological matter, these shape-shifting sensors can go into darker regions of the body. Researchers need not be constrained by limitations associated with optical connections.

Gary Zabow of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and colleagues Stephen Dodd and Alan Koretsky from the US National Institute of Health (NIH) published details of their diagnostic breakthrough in the March 16 issue of Nature.

Read more about these GEMs at the NIST website.

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