CANCER
January 29, 2010

Tiny Sensors That Detect Cancer

The search is on to develop nanosensors that would detect biomarkers in blood or sputum to catch cancers early.

Tiny sensors may soon be able to detect certain forms of cancer from patients’ blood samples, according to a new study in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Cancers that are difficult to diagnose early enough for effective treatment could be more successfully combated with such technology.

"There's a crying need for things like this in lung cancer, where you would want to be able to detect biomarkers in a sputum sample, and pancreatic and ovarian cancer," William C. Phelps of the American Cancer Society says of the new study. "You can't really detect these early, so they're very hard to treat.”

'There's a crying need for things like this in lung cancer, where you would want to be able to detect biomarkers in a sputum sample, and pancreatic and ovarian cancer.'

Older methods have typically had problems detecting biomarkers in actual blood samples due to a variety of problems such as “biofouling,” write the authors. (Biomarkers are tiny compounds that are telltale signals of cancer’s presence). These methods required the blood sample to be purified beforehand, and then tested for the presence of the biomarkers. But the new method outlined in the study uses a new – and rather complex – technology to isolate and concentrate the biomarkers from the “complex environment of whole blood.”

Mark A. Reed, coauthor of the study and associate director of the Yale University Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering, explains that “[t]he real achievement here was demonstrating this with blood, which was a longstanding goal. It could not be done before because blood has too much salt and other stuff in it, which prevents this type of sensing. We developed a method to filtrate out specifically what we want to detect."

Another benefit to the method outlined in the current paper is that very small samples of blood can be used. Moreover, the test can yield results very quickly – in 20 minutes or less – which would be a big advantage in the clinical setting, where waiting for test results is undesirable. Phelps writes that “[f]rom a personalized medicine point of view, you could take a spot of blood from a fingerprick and get results within minutes. It would be simple, stable and relatively inexpensive.”

Though there are several more steps involved before the technology can make the move into the clinical environment, the authors are extremely encouraged by the results, and see a promising new method in the future of cancer detection.

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