Graphene used to identify cancerous cells

Scientists at Chicago’s University of Illinois have discovered what they claim is the first method of detecting cancer using graphene.  

(Credit: UIC/Vikas Berry)
(Credit: UIC/Vikas Berry)

By interfacing brain cells onto graphene, the researchers were able to differentiate a single hyperactive cancerous cell from a normal cell. It’s believed the discovery could pave the way for a relatively straightforward, noninvasive diagnostic tool for detecting the disease.

Graphene’s single layer of carbon atoms share a cloud of electrons that move freely around its surface, making it extremely sensitive to changes. Compared to healthy cells, the hyperactivity of cancerous cells leads to a higher negative charge on the graphene’s surface, resulting in the release of more protons, and a change in the atomic vibration energy in graphene’s crystal lattice structure. This change is mapped using Raman spectography with a resolution of 300 nanometres.

“This graphene system is able to detect the level of activity of an interfaced cell,” said Vikas Berry, associate professor and head of chemical engineering at UIC, who led the research.

“The cell’s interface with graphene rearranges the charge distribution in graphene, which modifies the energy of atomic vibration as detected by Raman spectroscopy.”

The study, published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, looked at cultured human brain cells, comparing normal astrocytes to their cancerous counterparts, the highly malignant brain tumour glioblastoma multiforme. The method is now being used in a mouse model of cancer, and Berry says the results so far are “very promising”. Experiments with patient biopsies are planned for the future.

“Once a patient has brain tumour surgery, we could use this technique to see if the tumour relapses,” Berry said. “For this, we would need a cell sample we could interface with graphene and look to see if cancer cells are still present.”

According to the researchers, the technique could also have applications for other diseases.  

“We may be able to use it with bacteria to quickly see if the strain is Gram-positive or Gram-negative,” said Berry. “We may be able to use it to detect sickle cells.”