Spotlight on Health | Israeli scientist says healthy ideas come in tiny packages

Meir Orenstein thinks small. Very small. The width of a virus is his comfort zone.

As head of the Nano-Micro Photonics Laboratory at Israel’s Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, he explores the countless applications of miniaturization.

It turns out smaller is often better when it comes to the next generation of medical breakthroughs, for everything from fighting cancer to regulating blood sugar.

Orenstein visited San Francisco as a guest of the American Technion Society, which supports the institute in Haifa. He spoke at a May 22 breakfast session at the City Club in the Financial District.


Meir Orenstein talks about nanotech at the City Club in San Francisco on May 22. photo/dan pine

“Things behave differently when they are small,” Orenstein said, adding that nanotech research at the Technion seeks “devices to propel the future of biomedical.”

Orenstein brought along some items to demonstrate, such as a micro-sensor made of gold. He explained that gold, though an inert metal when the size of a ring or a tooth, behaves very differently when reduced to a fraction of the width of a human hair.

Gold at that nano-level can sense blood sugar levels in diabetics, he said, or uranium enrichment at secret nuclear sites.

It can also latch on  to cancer, he added.

Lab experiments suggest nano-gold can make its way to malignant tumors and absorb light, thus heating and exploding cancer cell membranes without causing toxic effects to healthy tissue.

“No chemo, no poison,” Ornstein said. “It’s a clean way to kill cancer.” He added that it will take years of testing and government approvals, however, before the technology could become available to patients.

Orenstein passed around a petri dish with little gold wires and a cluster of human nerve cells invisible to the naked eye. Under certain conditions, the cells reproduce into a network that remembers how to do things, just like a human brain. “We don’t know how it works,” he said. But it does.

Shifting gears, Orenstein described what he called a crisis in computer chip miniaturization. Basically, it’s at a point where it can go no smaller.

“We are at the limit of technology,” he said. “We cannot improve upon it, and by 2020 it will stop. The question of the future bugs all scientists.” That’s why Orenstein’s lab is pursuing what he calls “quantum engineering,” which he hopes will circumvent those fast-approaching limitations.

A native of Haifa, Orenstein earned a doctorate in physical chemistry at the Technion and went on to a career in nanotechnology. He founded three companies (including one in Silicon Valley) and has 17 patents, one of which is for a micro-laser used as a light source in medical diagnostics.

In a lighter moment of his presentation, Orenstein passed around a small plastic mold, embedded in which was a small dot of metal no bigger than a grain of rice. That, he told his audience, was the entire Bible (Jewish and Christian) written in full.

“We gave that to the pope as a gift,” he said.


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