Ever since some wag came up with the term "Silicon Valley" in the 1970s, investors have thought of semiconductors as the brains behind computers.
That was then. This is now. . .
Today, semiconductors are about a lot more than computers.
In a recent breakthrough, a new kind of computer chip was able to spot disease that doctors have a tough time finding on their own. This new field of cutting-edge high tech could have a big impact on the health of millions around the world.
See, we are getting very close to the point when your doctor will be able to detect not just what type of disease you have but which of many versions is affecting you.
And with these new chips they will have the answer in a matter of minutes.
That will speed up everything—the diagnosis, the drugs and—more to the point—your return to good health.
And needless to say, these breakthrough new chips could make a few savvy investors quite rich.
This new field—loosely called "lab on a chip"—holds so much promise that a key research arm of the Pentagon will spend at least $65 million to help get it out of the lab and into the real world.
In a moment, I'll give you the details. But first there is this recent new development.
The Power of "Protein Chips"
Intel Corp. has joined forces with a team from Stanford University School of Medicine. The Intel-Stanford team is placing proteins directly on chips to detect disease and help drug firms come up with new compounds.
Just last month, the team said it had synthesized an array of short pieces of proteins on silicon chips normally used as computer microprocessors. Team members said the process will help doctors quickly figure out which of the many possible drugs will work best for each patient.
Here's the thing. Proteins are vital to our health.
They are large, complex molecules that do most of the work in cells. We need them for the structure, function, and regulation of the body's tissues and organs.
Turns out proteins also serve as "markers" for certain diseases. . .
Take the case of one known as the translocator protein. This substance is highly associated with inflammation of the brain. It's a signal that the patient could have either multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's.
But right now, doctors can't find out quickly which of the two brain diseases you really have. That's why the Stanford-Intel team wants to use computer chips to help find the exact disease its protein is signaling.
By tapping this tech, they were able to tell which patients had a very severe form of lupus. It's a disease in which the immune system turns on itself and attacks the body and can damage organs.
At the very least, team members say, this advance could lead to much better drug trials. In the case of lupus, about half of patients enter these trials with a less severe form of the disease and are less likely to respond to new drugs.
Of course, I believe the Intel-Stanford platform could have a wide impact throughout medicine. Already, the team wants to use the system to design better flu vaccines, which would affect millions in the U.S. alone.
Here's how Stanford's Dr. Paul J. Utz described the "protein-on-chip" findings:
"When I see patients in the clinic right now, I may know they have arthritis, but I don't know which of the 20 or 30 types of the disease they have.
"Now we can measure thousands of protein interactions at a time, integrate this information to diagnose the disease and even determine how severe it may be. We may soon be able to do this routinely while the patient is still in the physician's office."
It's a Virtual Lab on a Chip
That sounds just like what I had in mind when I first alerted Money Morning readers about the "lab on chip" field back in late July. At that time, I told you how one of these new devices also could be used to test food safety and warn of biological attacks.
No wonder the Pentagon's research arm, called DARPA, is investing in this field. In late July, DARPA said it will invest up to $37 million for multiple organ-on-a chip systems designed to mimic the whole human body.
With the funding, a unit of Harvard University wants to build 10 different human organs on a chip. The team intends to link them in a chain to more closely mimic how the human body really works.
Harvard team members see this approach as a more accurate way to predict human responses than to rely on standard animal testing. They also believe the system could speed up the pipeline and U.S. approval of new drugs.
And in a related program, DARPA will provide up to $26.3 million to an MIT lab. This program also focuses on making 10 modules that mimic human systems like those for breathing and moving fluids through the body.
These projects are proof that high tech and science are moving so fast they are turning the world upside down.
Every day brings another major advance. I believe that in the near future we will routinely live past 100 and maintain good health along the way.
And just think. In just a few short years from now, those tiny silicon chips that run your PC just may save your life.