What would happen if we can detect cancer easily using a single drop of blood? This can significantly increase the chances of successful treatment. After all, one the of the top reasons certain types of cancer are difficult to cure is that they are hard to spot during the early stages. Such a feat seemed impossible until a group of researchers discovered a new ultrasensitive diagnostic microchip. This device could allow doctors to find traces of cancer in the tiniest drop of blood or in a component of the blood called plasma.
The “Lab-On-A-Chip” For Liquid Biopsy Analysis
The microfluidic chip recognizes exosomes – small packages of biological data malignant cells generate to stimulate the tumor spread or metastasize. The science community used to think that exosomes were like wastebaskets that cells could use to discard unwanted cellular contents.
Chemistry professor Yong Zeng of the University of Kansas, lead author of the study, explained that in the past 10 years, scientists have known that exosomes were quite valuable for communicating messages to recipient cells and sending molecular information crucial in various biological functions. Essentially, tumors send out exosomes wrapping active molecules that mimic the genetic features of the parental cells. While all the cells generate exosomes, tumor cells are actually active compared to normal cells.
Capturing Particles Using Nanopores
As published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the novel device’s main innovation is a 3D nanoengineering strategy that senses and combines biological elements based on a herringbone outline typically found in nature. This pushes exosomes into contact with the chip’s detection surface much more efficiently in a process called “mass transfer.”
Scientists have established smart ways to improve mass transfer in microscale channels. However, Zeng explains, that when particles move nearer to the sensor surface, they’re divided by a tiny gap of liquid that forms growing hydrodynamic resistance. In their study, Zeng and his team developed a 3D nanoporous herringbone pattern that can drain the fluid in that gap to allow the particles to come into contact with the surface where probes can identify and trap them.
An Easy And Inexpensive Solution With Great Potential
It’s like having a million tiny kitchen sinks, Zeng explains. If there are many balls floating on the surface of a sink filled with water, then you need to drain the water to get the balls to the bottom of the sink. The chip’s nanopores act in the same way – they channel the liquid away so that the sensors can analyze the floating particles.
When researchers tested the device’s design using clinical samples from ovarian cancer patients, they found out that it could detect the presence of cancer in a minuscule amount of plasma. Aside from their simple mechanism, microfluidic chips would also be less expensive and easier to manufacture than comparable designs. This allows for a wider and more cost-effective testing for patients.
Doctors could use the chip’s design to detect a host of other diseases. The simple and low-cost solution offers great promise to translate into clinical settings.