Does size matter? It does. For cardiologists, endocrinologists, oncologists, neurosurgeons, urologists, food technologists, automobile engineers, aerospace engineers, even security experts, it is the size of devices which will bring about a paradigm shift in the method in which they address problems.
These devices — each measuring just a few millimeters-are making their way into the domestic market in trickles. But in a couple of years, a slew of these smart, nano gizmos carrying sensors will be ready on shelves. All of them have been designed and made in labs across the country, and are being manufactured by public and private sector industries and some startups.
In a demonstration of how much each contraption could be shrunk, scientists at the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, presented Prime Minister Narendra Modi one measuring one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair with Om inscribed on it during his visit last year. Prof Rudra Pratap and his colleagues at IISc, who have designed many minuscule ‘smart’ sensors for the Tejas fighter aircraft and passed them on to Bharat Electronics, are certainly not resting on their feat. They have added one which maps the sugar-level in blood with just one micro ml of the body fluid, and are now working on a more complex concept — a lab on a chip or community chip — or many tiny sensors on a silicon chip measuring a couple of centimeters to simultaneously process details of all attributes of a drop of blood. “I think 20-30 nano and smart devices will materialize in the next five years,” says Prof Rudra Pratap.
These miniaturised pieces of equipment are going make a bigger impact in every field than IC chips did in electronics and related realms says Dr Vasudev K. Aatre, former chief of DRDO, and head of the National programme on Micro and Smart Systems, under which they were designed and tested.
“We did not stop at designing and making these devices, but have trained 5,000 scientists and engineers in the technology involved and set up 65 design centres at various universities to provide students an opportunity to wok in this field,” he added. The intention is to keep R&D going in universities and for those keen to launch startups to manufacture them. This programme was funded by the DRDO, the Department of Science & Technology, Department of Space, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and Department of electronics and information technology.
Among such miniature devices are one designed by a team at IIT-Mumbai to detect a heart attack with just a drop of blood, sans other tests, within an hour or two. It has four cardiac markers which detect the presence of proteins which are released at the time of a heart attack. The technology has been transferred to Nano sniff Technology, based in Mumbai. This institute has also fabricated another tiny apparatus to sniff out explosives, and transferred the technology to BigTech Labs, Bengaluru, for manufacture. And, one to suggest the best antibiotic for urinary track infection, designed by BITS Pilani, Hyderabad, will be manufactured by a startup, while the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru, is waiting for an industry to pick up the technology for its microscopic device which will tell if food has turned stale or ready to eat.
“Out of the 15 projects, nine have produced prototype devices, three of them have undergone transfer of technology, and the remaining is either undergoing clinical trials, or ready for trials,” is how Dr. Lazar Mathew, Advisor, PSG Institute of Advanced Studies, who headed the biomedical component of NPMASS, sums up the strides made in different laboratories, while adding that micro needles and micro pumps to push drugs or insulin into the blood stream would follow soon.