Nano breath test for cancer

Chemical engineers at the University of Michigan have won funding to develop a breath test device which will use nanotechnology to detect breast cancer.



The team, led by Joerg Lahann, assistant professor of chemical engineering, hopes the research will lead to inexpensive, early detection diagnostic tools which detect the presence of metabolites associated with breast cancer in the breath.



The team won a US Breast Cancer Research Program IDEA award, which funds promising, high-risk, high reward research proposals that could lead to critical advancements in eradicating breast cancer. The award will fund the team for $466,731 over three years.



The cornerstone of the device is the switchable surface technology developed in Lahann’s lab while a postdoctoral student at MIT. The IDEA proposal states that the switchable surfaces have molecularly designed sites that will attract certain metabolites indicative of breast cancer. These sites are nanopockets about 6.4 nm2 in size that interact with oil and water. The metabolites are attracted to the oil and water pockets.



The switchable surfaces can be engineered to stand up or lie down like blades of grass in the wind. The surfaces switch when electrical charges are applied to make the straight particles bend. When upright, the spaces between the particles are open, and will attract the metabolites.



A woman would breathe into an over-the-counter device and cancer-indicating metabolites would be attracted into the nanopockets, causing the pored surface to fill and become dense. Then, an electrical charge would be applied so that the straight particles would bend, ejecting the metabolites so that multiple tests could be done in the same device. The metabolites could then be detected through a change in conductance or optically.



The idea materialised when Lahann’s graduate student David Pang found two papers that showed certain metabolites that could mark breast cancer are present in breath and urine.



“We realised that if one could put these molecules in a screening platform, they might develop a non-invasive, quick and inexpensive over-the-counter breast cancer screening test,” Lahann said.