Researchers Create Cheap, Disposable Cancer-Detecting Sensor


Researchers at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, Spain have unveiled a new nanoparticle-based chip capable of detecting early-stage cancers from a single drop of blood. The device relies on the latest in nano-fabrication, surface chemistry, and microfluids technology, and the result is a finger-prick blood test that can detect trace amounts of key cancer biomarkers.

In a press release, researchers explain that currently, most cancers are only detected once they reach the macroscopic level, meaning that the tumor has already multiplied so many times that it contains millions of cancer cells, making treatment more difficult for doctors. The new technology will allow doctors to detect cancer while it is still in its very earliest stages, while the cancerous cells are still limited to only a small number of cells. “It would be like putting a fire out while it was still just a few sparks versus after having already caught on and spread to many areas of the house,” they explain.

Nanoparticles have generated a great deal of excitement across a broad range of industries in recent years. Their potential applications in early cancer detection have been making headlines since the late 2000’s. It was this same technology that 15-year old Jack Andraka utilized to create a pancreatic cancer detection test, and go on to win the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Nanoparticles display a number of amazing properties. They are 1/50,000 the thickness of a human hair, they are stronger than steel, and they conduct electricity better than copper. Researchers are beginning to use them to detect cancer by creating small nanotube networks, coating them with antibodies designed to attract the specific cancer biomarker being measured, and then passing a controlled electrical current through the network. As blood is introduced, the antibodies grab hold of passing cancer biomarkers. This increases the overall number of molecules resting on the nanotube network, and subsequently alters the electrical current passing through it. These variations in electrical current are easily detected and quantified, and directly correlate with the quantity of cancer biomarkers present in the blood.

Beyond advancements in early detection, the technology also represents a breakthrough in providing care in remote areas. Nanotube technology is cheap, easy to manufacture, and the resulting test is highly sensitive. It is also highly portable, requiring only a small sensor and a single drop of blood to test for an array of different hard to detect cancers. Researchers see potential uses expanding cancer screening outreach work in regions of the world where the population is not near enough a medical facility to comply with the recommended screening best practices.

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