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UNSW Sydney researchers discover easy blood test for cancer detection

Published in Health Monday, 03 September 2018 14:51



Sydney: A simple finger prick blood test is all that would be soon required to test for cancer, according to researchers at an Australian university who have discovered the use of nanoparticles to trace the levels of microRNA in a blood sample.


The research team at University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney used nanoparticles to latch on to the targeted microRNAs (miRNAs) which enabled them to be easily extracted.


RNAs are genetic material used to synthesise proteins. Impaired miRNA activity, or very low levels of microRNA in blood, has been linked with the formation of cancerous tumours as well as metastasis, the spread of cancer to other parts of the body.


One of the main benefits of the test is that it was effective even when the miRNA was in minuscule amounts in the blood sample, according to researchers at UNSW, a QS 50 ranked global university.


In a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers reported modifying gold-coated magnetic nanoparticles (Au@MNPs) with DNA to match the miRNA they wanted to detect.


UNSW Professor Justin Gooding said the nanoparticles are, in effect, dispersible electrodes. When circulated through the blood they capture the miRNA. A magnet is then used to recapture the nanoparticles with the attached microRNA.


“Now we get more of the microRNA because the dispersible electrodes capture nearly everything in the sample,” Professor Gooding said.


“Because the capture is so effective, we get higher sensitivities and can detect much lower limits.


The new method, besides being far quicker would be cheaper too.


As one of the world’s leading research and teaching universities, UNSW researchers have done pioneering research and innovation in area as diverse as photovoltaic cells, quantum computing and e-waste management. 


“Our method takes 30 minutes compared with almost 12 hours for quantitative polymerase chain reaction,” Professor Gooding said.


Key to the new technology is not just the ability to detect lower concentrations of miRNA but the ability to detect a broad range of concentrations.


“We can do this very quickly compared with the gold-standard nucleic acid amplification methods. And we can do it in unprocessed blood.


“What this means is the technology has the potential to determine the levels of microRNA just from a finger prick test,” he added.


Professor Gooding said he would expect the technology to be available within three years, pending regulatory approvals.


The new diagnostic technique follows on the heels of a similar advance made by another UNSW research team exploring cancer detection in the blood.


In that study, published in Nature Communications, a team of medical researchers led by Professor Chris Heeschen developed a new way to detect early-stage cancer tumour cells in the blood using a malaria protein. This method, which targeted individual cancer cells found in a blood sample, also used a magnet to retrieve all the targeted cancer cells.


Professor Gooding believes the two methods, while working on very different scales, would be very complementary as tools to diagnose cancer.


“We are detecting small molecules found in the blood which could also identify the type of cancer, while they are looking for rare cells that are responsible for the spread of cancer. The two technologies could work very well together.”


UNSW recently made news with 38 subjects making it to the top 100 in the influential ShanghaiRanking's Global Ranking of Academic Subjects 2018.


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