Researchers use nanotech to make cancer 3M times more detectable

Princeton scientists fine-tune test for early-stage cancer, Alzheimer's disease

Scientists at Princeton University say they have used nanotechnology to make tests to detect diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer's, 3 million times more sensitive.

That means what researchers are calling a breakthrough in nanotechnology and medicine could enable doctors to detect these illnesses at much earlier stages, when they are more treatable.

"This advance opens many new and exciting opportunities ... in disease early detection and treatment," said Stephen Chou, a Princeton engineering professor, who led the research team. "You can have very early detection with our approach."

Princeton researchers used nanotechnology to improve a biological test called an immunoassay, which measures the concentration of a substance in a body fluid sample, and is used to find markers for cancers and Alzheimer's, in patients. The test produces a fluorescent glow when the disease is detected. The stronger the presence of the disease, the brighter the test glows.

However, if only faint, early-stage traces of the disease are present, the glow can't be detected and the disease could be missed.

The Princeton researchers used nanotechnology to amplify the fluorescence, which gave them a 3-million-fold improvement in detection. It means the test now can detect disease with 3 million times fewer disease biomarkers present.

The earlier a cancer can be detected, the sooner treatment can begin, and the better chance a patient has of survival.

The key to the breakthrough, according to Princeton's researchers, lies in a new nanomaterial they call D2PA. The nanomaterial, which was developed in Chou's lab, consists of a thin layer of gold nanostructures surrounded by glass pillars that are 60 nanometers in diameter. About 1,000 of the pillars can be laid side by side and still only be as wide as a human hair.

Each pillar, spaced 200 nanometers apart, is capped with a gold disk. Each pillar also is speckled with even smaller gold dots. The pillars boost the collection and transmission of light by a billion-fold, Princeton said.

The university noted that Chou is focused on using the new technology to detect early-stage breast and prostate cancers. He also is working with researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to develop tests to detect proteins associated with early stage Alzheimer's disease.

Late in 2008, researchers at Stanford University used nanotechnology in a blood scanner to detect early-stage cancers.

"The earlier you can detect a cancer, the better chance you have to kill it," Shan Wang, a Stanford professor of materials science and electrical engineering, said at the time. "This could be especially helpful for lung cancer, ovarian cancer and pancreatic cancer, because those cancers are hidden in the body."

In the fall of 2009, a team of Stanford researchers used nanotechnology and magnetics to create a biosensor that they said should be able to detect cancer in its early stages.

The sensor, which sits on a microchip, is 1,000 times more sensitive than cancer detectors used at the time and were shown to be effective in finding early-stage tumors in mice.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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