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New Nanotech Helps Detect Early-Stage Cancer

Soulskill posted about 5 years ago | from the may-or-may-not-enjoy-sousa dept.

Biotech 18

CWmike writes "Stanford University researchers have 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 clinically today, say scientists at Stanford. The researchers announced this week that the sensors have been effective in finding early-stage tumors in mice, giving them hope that it can be equally successful in detecting elusive cancers in humans. 'In the early stage [of a cancer], the protein biomarker level in blood is very, very low, so you need ultra-sensitive technology to detect it,' said Shan Wang, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford. 'If you can detect it early, you can have early intervention and you have a much better chance to cure that person.' Wang also noted that the biosensor could be used to determine whether chemotherapy or other cancer treatments are working after only a few days."

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Anything to help stop cancer is good in my books. (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29777869)

Anything to help stop cancer is good in my books. Cancer is one of the most horrible things to plague mankind. Good stuff.

For anyone interested in a real description... (4, Informative)

toppavak (943659) | about 5 years ago | (#29777887)

and not a pile on nonsensical garbage, the wang group page [] has a good description of the project.

Essentially they're using magnetic nanoparticles covered with antibodies to detect the binding of some tumor biomarkers. While the idea is interesting, there's no indication (yet) that its more sensitive than other biomarker assays, although it very well may be. Fluorescence techniques can get down to the tens of molecules level of sensitivity (which is insanely impressive). If they can get even lower, I'd be extremely impressed, but I can't find any published data on their immunoassays. Their comments about capturing and sorting out cancer cells is a bit odd. If you're looking to isolate whole cells based on recognizing protein biomarkers, I can't see any advantages of their tech over standard fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS), unless their assays are really more sensitive.

Really, the only thing of interest in this work is using the magnetic properties of their nanoparticles to detect binding. I would be really curious to see if this could supplant technologies like quartz crystal microbalances that look for changes in the vibrational modes of a crystal to detect surface binding events as being simpler and less prone to disruption by temperature fluctuations, doors opening or people walking by. The biomarker assay is interesting but by no means genuinely new technology- only the detection method is truly novel. Not bashing the work done here, the binding assay is really cool, the application looks like it was mostly thought of to get grant money.

Re:For anyone interested in a real description... (4, Informative)

toppavak (943659) | about 5 years ago | (#29777989)

Also this may just be splitting hairs, but putting "helps detect early stage cancer" in the headline implies that they, well, actually helped detect an early stage cancer in a patient. A laboratory proof of concept for a protein biomarker assay is very, very far away from actually "help[ing to] detect early stage cancer".

After reading some of the Stanford press out there on this, I've gotta say I'm really sick of 'science' journalists. Saying their test can detect cancer with 1,000 times the sensitivity and specificity has very different meanings than what they intended in diagnostics. It sounds like they're claiming 1,000-fold improvements in false negative (sensitivity) and false positive (specificity) rather than assay sensitivity based on concentrations. Their claim is also inaccurate. ELISA assays are commercially available with sensitivities as high as 1 part per 10 billion, while their claim is for a sensitivity of 1 part per 100 billion. ELISA assays have also been reported (and a couple are commercially available) with sensitivities of 1 part per 100 billion.

Re:For anyone interested in a real description... (1)

oldhack (1037484) | about 5 years ago | (#29778237)

Thanks for the clarification.

On a related note, while I don't mean to discourage such research, I've been reading new line of thoughts that, as we learn more about tumor formation, early cancer detection may not be so beneficial because tumors form much more frequently and often in benign fashion than previously thought, and early detection often forces treatment that may be worse than non-treatment.

No, I'm no medical researcher.

Re:For anyone interested in a real description... (1)

toppavak (943659) | about 5 years ago | (#29780203)

I'm not a cancer researcher per se, but a lot of technologies I work with have applications in cancer research / are demonstrated with applications in cancer research. Personally, I agree with that view. Biomarkers are great for detecting foreign organisms like tuberculosis, malaria, etc. but are likely not going to be a very good solution for detecting malignant tumors since most of their secretions (hormones and proteins) are usually (but not always, hence why some biomarkers exist) not distinguishable from those secreted by healthy cells- except in quantity. Personally, I believe high resolution imaging (MR/CT/optical) combined with genomic and proteomic strategies for cancer sub-typing will end up being the most powerful tools we have for early diagnosis of potentially malignant tumors. There's a lot of great work being done identifying mutations that give rise to cancerous cell lines which enable simple PCR assays to detect the presence of those mutations in biopsy samples. Even more exciting, in my opinion, are new assays for quantifying cell signaling activity in live cells from biopsies (I work in a lab that does a lot of this, so I may be biased) because we can look for cancerous phenotypes (for example, which specific signal pathways in a cell are over/under activated) which are a lot easier to associate with a tumor and don't change as quickly as cancerous genotypes. A combination of those two would give a physician all the information he/she needs to prescribe the treatment which has the best shot at knocking the cancer out.

What "protein biomarker" are they talking about? (2, Informative)

Michael G. Kaplan (1517611) | about 5 years ago | (#29778547)

Cancer can affect the levels of various proteins in the blood: prostate cancer can raise prostate specific antigen, carcinoembryonic antigen is associated with colon and other cancers, alpha-fetoprotein is associated with liver and other cancers... the list goes on and on.

The problem is that these proteins are produced by normal cells but cancer cells often produce them in excess. The ability to detect these proteins has never been a problem. The problem is that they often only reach a very high level when the cancer has spread. The only protein used in cancer screening is prostate specific antigen and the benefit of this test is very contentious as its use has resulted in many a false negative and false positive diagnosis.

A real discovery would be to identify a blood marker that is useful for screening. It must be sensitive enough to enable detection while the cancer is curable but still maintain a very low false positive rate - as of today this doesn't exist for any cancer.

And what level should doctors intervene? (5, Insightful)

Vellmont (569020) | about 5 years ago | (#29777907)

If this device is 1000x more sensitive than anything we've had before, it seems to me that we have no real data about how such a low level corresponds to actual cancer risk.

It's been well known for decades that cancer cells are commonly created in the body. Most of the time the immune system takes care of them before cancer gets a foothold. One question I have is, will this sensor be so sensitive it'll detect the normal everyday cancer that our immune system would normally fight off by itself? This could lead to un-necessary intervention, which can cause more harm than good.

Re:And what level should doctors intervene? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29779487)

That's actually the argument against prostate specific antigen screening.

The detection rates (and treatment rates) are way up. However there is no evidence that the occurrence rates have actually gone up.

This seems to indicate that they are treating a lot more people than previously would have needed it.

Re:And what level should doctors intervene? (1)

Herschel Cohen (568) | about 5 years ago | (#29784749)

Add the Japanese experience with higher rates of lung cancer surgery due to more prevalent screening, but no change in the statistical outcome. Thus, one must assume many <i>cancers</i> detected would have been eliminated without intervention.

Pancreatic Cancer is detected by Pregnancy Testers (0)

NRAdude (166969) | about 5 years ago | (#29780807)

Pancreatic Cancer kills within 6 months if I heard correctly. A recent discussion from herbalist Wendy Wilson on, Friday/17, Oct 2009 edition of The Power Herbs, revealed that it was discovered from a prior study that Pancreatic Cancers release an unusual enzyme through the Urine that is the same as with a pregnant woman. With sensitive pregnancy-testing tools, which improves yearly, it is possible to detect such viral cancers.

It was disclosed from a cancer-surgeon Dr. Simoncini, that he halted all surgeries when he found that that cancer can be removed simply be treatments using nothing more than Baking Soda ( solution and monitoring and raising the PH level of the body of whomever he's working with. I have a vast collection of jungle pictures of insects that ingested fungal spores, and the fungus spread it's micorhyzae (iirc) through the live insect alive lowering the host's PH level, then afterwards sprouted an impaling fruiting-body through the exoskeleton. That's exactly what a fungus does to people too.

Re:And what level should doctors intervene? (1)

hesaigo999ca (786966) | about 5 years ago | (#29797207)

good point!

Publication is here: doi:10.1038/nm.2032 (3, Informative)

gustep12 (1161613) | about 5 years ago | (#29780699)

I'm part of this research and I'm pleasantly surprised someone posted it on Slashdot. To answer some questions: The device is indeed a concentration-measuring chip (not just positive / negative, which would be simpler), and in a just-posted Nature Medicine paper it shows that the signal vs. concentration curve goes 1000x farther on the low end (and the high end too, i.e. more dynamic range) before blending in with the background than the same assay (and antibodies) used on ELISA. Plus, it is a simple device that performs identically in saliva, urine, different pH and temperatures, and which is generally rugged and not too picky about the experimental conditions. This is quite helpful too.

Another point of the publication is that this device can measure small but slowly increasing tumor marker concentrations in lab mice which are known to have cancer. The key is that these tumor markers can be measured with this chip, but are too small in concentration for the traditional platforms such as ELISA. This means you can (in mice, at least) get important early cancer growth trend information (from a blood test) which you probably wouldn't have been able to obtain before.

Just published in Nature Medicine Advanced Online publications (unfortunately requires subscription): []

Technical Report abstract

Nature Medicine

Published online: 11 October 2009 | doi:10.1038/nm.2032

Matrix-insensitive protein assays push the limits of biosensors in medicine

Re:Publication is here: doi:10.1038/nm.2032 (2, Interesting)

gustep12 (1161613) | about 5 years ago | (#29780715)

P.S. Here is an older publication which has been open-sourced (open access) and which shows the technology: []

this is great. (1)

backslashdot (95548) | about 5 years ago | (#29781469)

Soon, cancer treatment will be highly specialized and tailored to the individual and the cancer or cancers he/she has. This and other technologies can be used to dynamically adjust the patients treatments in essentially real time. If an emerging resistant strain(s) is detected or found to be emerging, then potent and thought out combination therapy can be used to control or destroy the cancer. Combination therapy will have to be engineered in such a way that it's mathematically as infeasible as possible for newer multi resistant strains to emerge.

Perhaps drugs themselves could test a cell or blood or anywhere in vitro i guess for biomarker(s) and then adjust its structure according to what has been encountered so it can effectively treat it. The simpler thing is so that it tests a cell for a cancer marker first and then blocks or kills it if it is dangeorous .. or it can use multiple criteria. Let me give you an example .. if a certain type of cell .. say in the liver has markers of being kidney origin .. then it could be a cancer cell and the drug can destroy it. This can also be used to treated auto immune problems or infectious diseases. Some progress is being made to this kind of smart drug design .. recently someone announced the can do an AND operation.

Cancer drugs will need to be designed on the fly in the future. As in, if you have a certain cancer, the drug may have to be designed specifically for your cancer based on its genetic profile. What I mean is that they will have to take a sample of your cancer cells, sequence them INDIVIDUALLY .. then figure out what drugs to give you in combination so that all the cancer cells can be destroyed with no chance of resistant mutations survival. In some cases this could mean developing monoclonal antibodies or small molecules tailored only to an individual target or even larger molecules tailored to multiple targets and/or ones hat can collude/coorperate.

There will need to be a mechanism in place for allowing this treatment (require virtual toxicology profiling? Require some animal test? Require the dosage to bbe given in very small amounts first (dangerous & could result in sequential resistance mutations .. that will defeat the combination therapy and make the cancer highly resistant)

Misleading (1)

pcarvalho750924 (1381835) | about 5 years ago | (#29781595)

I currently work with mass spectrometry to study differences in protein expression levels to understand cancer. By using the Orbitrap, we are able to study proteins in femtomolar levels and we are still far from detecting biomarkers. In deed, the field of proteomics recognizes that such is still an open chalenge, even when analyzing simple cell cultures instead of complex biofluids such as plasma. The field has become tired of published manuscripts of biomarkers that have proven wrong and are an artifact of overfiting statistical approaches. In this regard, it could be misleading to "advertise" and article as such before proving the claims on large populations.

Re:Misleading (1)

gustep12 (1161613) | about 5 years ago | (#29788193)

Well, from my point of view this chip is simply a very sensitive protein quantification device. You can measure a wide range of proteins (related to cardiac disease, allergies, Alzheimer's, and many more), not just "cancer biomarkers", i.e. proteins which are suspected/proven to have a link to cancer.

How reliably can one really diagnose cancer from a blood protein test? In my opinion, cancer has so many different forms (it mutates constantly) that it is harder to find a common and highly reliable diagnostic marker for it than it is for many other diseases.

For that reason, right now a definite cancer diagnosis is still made by physically finding the tumor tissues, I think. However, there will probably be enough data to perform a high confidence diagnosis from blood tests in the near future.

The chip mentioned here could speed up research and adoption of protein tests into general medicine.

As a little mini-overview over biomarkers:

Mostly Established:

Pregnancy: hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) is a high-confidence biomarker
Cancer: CEA (cancer embryonic antigen) was used in the mouse model in the Nature paper
Prostate Cancer: PSA (prostate-specific antigen) used to be highly regarded, now somewhat disputed
Heart disease: Troponin-I is a very specific marker of heart tissue damage

Upcoming (i.e. prospective biomarkers have been identified but need to be validated):

Autoimmune Diseases
Etc. (Lots of research going on).

The only conclusion... (1)

MrKaos (858439) | about 5 years ago | (#29783271)

after this much study and dedication to his profession is that "Wang cares".

Just don't say it too quickly.

Now if we could only... (1)

hesaigo999ca (786966) | about 5 years ago | (#29797225)

Now if we could only program the nanotechnology to attack the cancer cells then lay dormant until the day comes that
the replicators have sent out the emergency activation beacon, which it would then restart and take control of the body, then we.....
um.....I think i watch too much stargate

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