A portable, versatile and low-cost molecular detection tool being developed by a team of European researchers promises to advance the diagnosis of diseases such as cancer and open up new applications in sectors as diverse as environmental protection, chemical analysis and food safety.
Working in the field of micro- and nano-technologies, the IST programme-funded BioFinger project is due to begin testing its system over the summer amid expectations for a commercial product to be available on the market within two to three years.
“What we are creating is a generic, highly precise and highly versatile tool to detect and analyse molecules in the blood and other fluids using nano and micro cantilevers,” explains project co-ordinator Joan Bausells at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas in Spain.
Nanocantilevers, smaller than the surface of a fly’s eye, and their larger counterparts microcantilevers, function as sensors to detect molecules providing in the medical world, for example, a way to rapidly and accurately diagnose disease. When coated with antibodies they bend and resonate to changes in surface tension and mass when fluids containing disease-related protein molecules attach to them. By seeing whether or not the cantilevers react, doctors would be able to determine whether or not a disease is present.
Though much research has been carried out into cantilevers, it has focused principally on creating large-scale tools for use inside laboratories.
“You can’t carry those around with you, so what we are developing is the first portable device that will allow doctors to diagnose diseases on the spot almost immediately,” Bausells says.
During trials at Cork University Hospital in Ireland this summer, the microcantilever version of the system will be used to detect a protein associated with prostate cancer, while the nanocantilever system, which can detect a single molecule, will be used to test blood samples for interleukin 6, a protein associated with inflammation.
The BioFinger tool incorporates the cantilevers on a microchip that is disposable after each use, allowing it to be reconfigured with new on-chip cantilevers to detect different substances.
The analysis, which can be performed anywhere, anytime, takes between 15 and 20 minutes, “considerably less than the hours or days” it takes to analyse a blood sample using traditional in-lab methods, the co-ordinator notes.
In addition, the system is likely to be considerably cheaper than traditional diagnosis techniques with each disposable chip expected to cost around eight euros.
“It is also extremely versatile,” Bausells notes. “It could be used to detect virtually any disease, as a pregnancy test or even to determine blood types. Outside of the medical field, it could be used to analyse chemicals, detect bacteria in food or test for water pollution.”