New cancer test headlines International Nanomedicine Conference

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A new sensor than can detect very low concentrations of cancer markers in blood tests is among new technologies to be presented at this week's annual International Nanomedicine Conference.

The conference will be held in Sydney (24-26 June) and is celebrating its tenth year.

It is hosted by ACN – an interdisciplinary partnership between the UNSW Faculties of Engineering, Science and Medicine, and Children’s Cancer Institute. ACN is dedicated to the prevention, diagnosis and curing of diseases, especially hard to treat diseases.

The conference, which is considered as the most significant nanomedicine meeting in the southern hemisphere, attracts representation from universities, medical research institutes and biotech companies sharing novel research that may lead to prevention, diagnosis and treatment of some of the most challenging diseases.

A group of chemists from UNSW Sydney’s Australian Centre for NanoMedicine (ACN) and biologists from UNSW's Lowy Cancer Research Centre have created an early version of the first 'nanopore blockade sensor' that can analyse disease biomarkers at a rapid, single molecule level.

Cancer biomarkers – or tumour markers – are substances, often proteins, that are produced by the body in response to cancer growth.

According to UNSW Scientia Professor Justin Gooding, who developed the technology with a team of scientists, a key approach to reducing deaths from life-threatening cancers is to diagnose cancers as early as possible when treatments were far more effective.

“Developing ultrasensitive cancer marker sensors is critical because it allows for very early detection after the cancer has occurred but before any symptoms start appearing,” said Professor Gooding, from the School of Chemistry at UNSW Science.

“The best way to cure cancer is to detect and diagnose it early. What this sensor can do is detect biomarkers and single molecules at much lower levels than current blood tests can, and we can get results in several minutes.” 

The nanopore blockade sensors work by using magnetic particles to capture biomarkers and bring them to one of many small pores drilled through a silicon membrane. If a magnetic nanoparticle has captured the biomarker, it will block the pore. By counting which pores are blocked the biomarkers can be counted, one molecule at a time. Importantly, the device can be used on whole blood samples regularly taken at pathology labs.

Professor Gooding said the technology is approximately five-to-ten years away from being available to patients. “This is a really hot area in cancer research, especially as it could potentially have a substantial impact as an effective means to estimate how effective treatment will be and assess how likely it is for cancer to reoccur.”