New approach accelerates detection of cancer biomarkers for point-of-care diagnostics

The detection and quantification of cancer-associated molecular biomarkers in body fluids or liquid biopsies is shown to be minimally invasive in the early diagnosis of cancer. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed an approach that accelerates the detection of cancer biomarkers in samples collected at the time and place of patient care.

The study, published in ACS Nano, focused on the detection of a group of molecular biomarkers called microRNAs (miRNAs), small single-stranded, non-coding RNAs that play an important role in gene expression and regulation. More importantly, miRNAs have been linked to certain types and stages of cancer and as such have received increased attention.

Since tumor-specific mutations in miRNAs can be linked to tumor progression and metastasis, we can use miRNAs for early diagnosis of cancer and selection of therapies in the future. Conventional detection methods take up to several hours for the person to get the result, so our motivation was to speed up the response time and shorten it.”

Congnyu Che, graduate student in bioengineering at the Cunningham Laboratory and first author of the paper

Previously, the Cunningham group developed a technique for capturing miRNA biomarkers, called photonic Resonator Absorption Microscopy, which is able to visualize gold nanoparticles bound to target miRNAs. Using only gold nanoparticles, it would take between 1 and 2 hours for the nanoparticles to reach the biosensor. To speed up the process, Che synthesized magnetic-plasmonic nanoparticles that incorporated iron materials that could then be attracted to a stationary magnet placed under the biosensor. Detection time has been reduced to just one minute.

“Our approach has a one-minute response time, which means the patient or doctor only waits one minute to find out the test result,” Che said.

“If you have a simple, rapid and sensitive test like this, it can be used to detect cancer, monitor the effectiveness of cancer treatment and follow treatment,” the study leader said. Brian Cunningham (Director CGD/MMG), Intel Alumni Endowed Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We envision this method being used in a health clinic so you don’t have to take a sample, send it to a lab, and wait several days.”

In the study, the researchers focused on miRNAs associated with advanced prostate cancer since they have a collaboration with prostate cancer experts at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah. They demonstrated faster detection time and high selectivity when using magnetic-plasmonic nanoparticles to detect miRNAs in human serum.

“This approach provides much faster sample-response analysis of miRNA biomarkers that are used in cancer, nutrition, heart health, and maternal health diagnostics in point-of-care scenarios,” Cunningham said.

This work was supported by IGB, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Zhejiang University ZJU-UIUC Joint Research Center.


Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Journal reference:

Che, C., et al. (2022) Accelerated Computational Biosensing Using Photon Resonator Absorption Microscopy Coupled with Magneto-Plasmonic Nanoparticles. ACS Nano.

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