A new nanomaterial might be the key to portable devices that can rapidly detect cancer recurrence, replacing invasive tests
A thin, elastic nanoparticle composite known as a “chiral nanostructure.” It’s capable of circularly polarizing light – coiling it into the shape of a helix (1).
The composite can be built into a portable device that can detect the early stages of cancer recurrence. Why is such a device needed? At the moment, cancer follow-up treatment and monitoring can include maintenance chemotherapy, blood draws, lumbar punctures, extensive diagnostic imaging and a host of other appointments designed to ensure patients never experience an undetected recurrence. But these appointments – however necessary – take time, cost money, and present an unwelcome disruption to patients’ lives for years after they reach remission. And of course, they’re not perfect; recurrences may not be detected until they’re having a significant health impact. So a group of chemical engineers at the University of Michigan asked themselves, “Can we do better?”
They envision a process that begins with taking a blood sample and adding reflective synthetic particles that bind to natural cancer biomarkers. Viewing the sample under circularly polarized light would make the reflective particles visible – meaning that detecting even the earliest signs of cancer could be as simple as looking for them under the right conditions. With a device like this, a simple blood test could replace hours of invasive tests and spot recurrences even earlier.
The material has only just been developed, so the research is still a long way from commercial availability – but it’s possible that, in a few years’ time, cancer specialists may be using portable polarization devices to quickly and noninvasively monitor their patients.
- Y Kim, “Reconfigurable chiroptical nanocomposites with chirality transfer from the macro- to the nanoscale”, Nat Mater, [Epub ahead of print] (2016). PMID: 26726996.
While obtaining degrees in biology from the University of Alberta and biochemistry from Penn State College of Medicine, I worked as a freelance science and medical writer. I was able to hone my skills in research, presentation and scientific writing by assembling grants and journal articles, speaking at international conferences, and consulting on topics ranging from medical education to comic book science. As much as I’ve enjoyed designing new bacteria and plausible superheroes, though, I’m more pleased than ever to be at Texere, using my writing and editing skills to create great content for a professional audience.