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Separating biomolecules to detect early signs of cancer

University of Delaware

Scientists say it’s hard to detect premature evidence of cancer with existing technology, but a University of Delaware professor is developing a better early warning system. 

John Slater, a professor of biomedical engineering, is looking to take early detection a step further by shrinking down a tiny device called a lab-on-a-chip. The microscopic chip can screen people more quickly for signs of cancer by separating exosomes — fluid-filled membranes — from blood.

“These lab-on-a-chip devices, they’ll have separation processes that allow the biomolecules of interest to be separated from a blood or urine sample,” Slater said. “They will somehow be processed either by attaching magnetic particles or attaching fluorescent molecules that then allow for detection of those molecules in measurements of concentration.”

Because they are composed of molecular proteins and RNA, the exosomes are a useful tool in disease detection and researchers can chemically grab or physically separate them from a hydrogel solution of blood or urine to verify ill health. For what Slater hopes to do in facilitating early detection, current models of labs-on-a-chip are inefficient in separating exosomes from blood. 

Scientists commonly employ three methods for isolating a biomarker, a possible indication of cancer, with labs-on-a-chip: Fluorescent detection, magnetic isolation or electrical detection.

“Fluorescent is really easy to induce and read,” Slater said. “Magnetism can control electric fields, which, it’s really easy to measure those changes in electric fields, and with electrical systems, if you bind something to it, you can get a large change in the electrical field. It’s very easy to measure changes in concentration using those three techniques. If you had a biomarker there you could relate your signal back to how much of your marker was there.”

Slater said the goal is to eventually embed these labs-on-a-chip in a watch-like device that anyone can use to take a reading for an underlying health issue. The vision is if a person were to prick their finger and place a small drop of blood into an inlet chamber, the device could use inherent flow properties to isolate a biomarker, a biomolecule that can indicate that cancer is present and even what type of cancer it is.

“Really our main focus is we’re trying to take what biology has done, so our body is extremely efficient, and we’re basically just trying to use that knowledge or use that design principle that’s already been developed by our body and make that into our engineered system,” Slater said. “So we can use the same principle to make these labs-on-a-chip devices much more efficient and much more compact.”

This is one of six grant-funded projects at UD that is targeted toward developing new bioscience technology.