Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have created a chemical test that can detect cancer cells like a bloodhound sniffing out a murderer on the loose.
The chemical sensor uses gold nanoparticles and green fluorescent proteins — a biological dye — that can tell the difference between cancer cells and normal cells. The sensor was tested on mice that were specialized to have a cancer that easily spreads throughout their bodies, reports Medical Daily.
Vincent Rotello, who led the research team at the university, says:
With this tool, we can now actually detect and identify metastasized tumor cells in living animal tissue rapidly and effectively using the ‘nose’ strategy. We were the first group to use this approach in cells, which is relatively straightforward. Now we’ve done it in tissues and organs, which are very much more complex. With this advance, we’re much closer to the promise of a general diagnostic test.
Biological sensors in the past have worked only when the researcher knows which cancer receptor it should look for. The chemical sensor, on the other hand, can assign a different signature for each cancer type.
The effect is that the chemical sensor acts much like our nose does, the university researchers say. Our nose can tell if something smells odd or not. In essence, the sensor can tell the difference between a cancer “smell” and a normal “smell.”
Even though two cheeses may look the same, our noses can tell a nicely ripe one from a cheese that’s a few days past tasting good. In the same way, once we train the sensor array we can identify whether a tissue sample is healthy or not and what kind of cancer it is with very high accuracy.
The sensor uses a chemical analysis that has a specific application for finding a particular molecular signature. Researchers in various fields use the same general sort of analysis when trying to search for or reveal chemical compositions, such as determining an element’s molecular weight, detecting organic or inorganic materials, or quantifying compounds in a sample.
Rotello’s sensor can locate cancer cells within a sample of 2,000 cells — a microbiopsy — that is less invasive for a patient than normal biopsies. Also, the sensor can tell the difference between cancer cells that spread quickly and those that spread slowly. It can also differentiate between various cancer types, such as breast and prostate.
The research was summarized in a paper published in ACS NANO. For the next part of the study, the researchers will begin testing the sensor on human subjects.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.