What is nanotechnology? You know: those futuristic sub-microscopic tools and gadgets so small they can float around in your bloodstream and accomplish all kinds of otherwise impossible tasks. On the drawing board, they range from tiny spheres that act like mini lubricating ball bearings all the way up to ultra-mini submarines to navigate your bloodstream and do micro brain surgery from the inside, complete with crews of tiny sailors, surgeons, and gorgeous girls.
As far as I know, the mini-subs are still some time off in the future, but not too long ago I made a molecular handle. A handle’s a device, right? And this one is very-super-extremely-ultra-tiny, so it’s definitely in the nanotechnology realm. And it’s one of the most commonly used laboratory tools in genetic engineering labs around the world these days, so that’s in the commercially successful realm, right?
So there you go, I may just be the inventor of the world’s very first commercially successful nanotechnology device. Click the image for a bit closer look.
Let me tell you a little bit about this handy gadget.
The picture above shows a protein molecule in shades of gold and yellow, with my molecular handle attached to it shown in red. You see how the handle sort of sticks up and waves in the breeze, so to speak? That prompted me to nickname it the “Flag,” although scientists know it by the techno term “epitope tag.”
So why would anyone want to use a molecular handle? Frying pan handle, okay. Screw driver handle, okay. Molecular handle — what? Well, consider what my Flag handle is attached to in the picture. That yellow blobby thing is diphtheria toxin, one of the deadliest molecular poisons known. You’ve got to handle this stuff very carefully or it will drop you in your tracks. Hence the need for a handle to keep it at “arm’s length” so to speak. Most scientists handle the Flag with an oven-mit-like molecule called an “antibody,” which is a whole ‘nother story. Once you’ve finished your studies, the handle may be detached to yield the original toxin by clipping the handle off at the connection shown in blue, by means of a proteinase. Never mind what “proteinase” means, either. A detachable handle, then. Very clean. Very nice. Very useful for medical research. So useful, in fact, that thousands of researchers around the world have reported success using my method to advance their own experiments. These include studies on deadly viruses, heart ailments, tumors, or any other endeavor where the culprit is a protein of one kind or another (there are millions of ’em). In the time since I described the Flag in a patent and a scientific paper, literally tens of thousands of other researchers have published discoveries based on my invention or perhaps one of the knock-off, copycat handles that have appeared more recently.
Click on the image at left if you’d like to read an article I published on the subject. Warning! It’s ver-r-r-ry techno. In the years since that seminal paper, I’ve seen reports of researchers using the Flag handle to study proteins involved with Alzheimer’s disease, smallpox, arthritis, neurotransmission, and about a zillion other types of cells, molecules, and diseases. It’s quite gratifying to know a tool I developed two decades ago has taken on such stature in modern molecular biology and medical research.
I’d better take pride, because I got precious little else for it. When I filed the patent in 1984, my bosses at Immunex made me sign over the rights to them and they were pretty miserly in sharing the wealth they won with my invention. Ah well, such was my life as a working stiff. No member of the privileged class, I.
Knockoffs of my nanotech gadget are pretty widespread now, but the original is still the most widely used and–I’m happy to tell you–still the best little molecular handle in the world. If you’d like to learn more about the Flag molecular handle, check out the following links:
The original description of the Flag in Nature Biotechnology, a leading scientific journal.
The cover page of my first patent describing the Flag.
The Wikipedia page explaining the Flag Epitope Tag.
Finally, here’s a link to Protein Research Laboratories, the small biotechnology and consulting company I run here in Seattle, just in case you or somebody you know would like some advice on how to use my molecular handle.