A new device that can detect very low concentrations of cancer markers in blood tests could one day help doctors diagnose cancer at its earliest stages, researchers say.

A group of chemists from UNSW Sydney’s Australian Centre for NanoMedicine (ACN) and biologists from UNSW's Lowy Cancer Research Centre have created an early version of the first “nanopore blockade sensor” that can analyse disease biomarkers at a rapid, single molecule level.

Cancer biomarkers – or tumour markers – are substances, often proteins, that are produced by the body in response to cancer growth.

UNSW Scientia Professor Justin Gooding, who developed the technology with a team of scientists, said a key approach to reducing deaths from life-threatening cancers was to diagnose cancers as early as possible, when treatments were far more effective.

“Developing ultrasensitive cancer marker sensors is critical because it allows for very early detection after the cancer has occurred but before any symptoms start appearing,” said Professor Gooding, from the School of Chemistry at UNSW Science. “The best way to cure cancer is to detect and diagnose it early. What this sensor can do is detect biomarkers and single molecules at much lower levels than current blood tests can, and we can get results in several minutes.” 

The nanopore blockade sensors work by using magnetic particles to capture biomarkers and bring them to one of many small pores drilled through a silicon membrane. If a magnetic nanoparticle has captured the biomarker, it will block the pore. By counting which pores are blocked the biomarkers can be counted, one molecule at a time. Importantly, the device can be used on whole blood samples regularly taken at pathology labs.

'This sensor can detect biomarkers and single molecules at much lower levels than current blood tests can, and we can get results in several minutes.'

The technology is about five to 10 years away from being available to patients and needs to go through rigorous further research and trials now, said Professor Gooding. “This is a really hot area in cancer research, especially as it could potentially have a substantial impact as an effective means to estimate how effective treatment will be and assess how likely it is for cancer to reoccur.”

The research and development of the sensor is funded by the Australian Research Council through the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology and an ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship.

The device is just one technology that will be presented at the annual International Nanomedicine Conference in Sydney next week (24-26 June).

The Conference, celebrating its 10th year, is hosted by ACN – an interdisciplinary partnership between the UNSW Faculties of Engineering, Science and Medicine, and Children’s Cancer Institute. ACN is dedicated to the prevention, diagnosis and curing of diseases, especially hard to treat diseases.

Regarded as the most significant nanomedicine meeting in the Southern Hemisphere, the conference attracts representation from universities, medical research institutes and biotech companies sharing novel research that may lead to prevention, diagnosis and treatment of some of the most challenging diseases.

Conference highlights

  • Social Aspects & Regulatory (Monday, 24 June): Discussion of the the social and political dimensions of nanomedicine.
  • Clinical Challenges Session (Tuesday, 25 June): Medical doctors will discuss opportunities for improving the treatment of patients in the clinic, to ensure that research efforts are focused on goals that will improve patient care.
  • Industry Session (Tuesday, 25 June): The aim is to generate active discussion and collaboration in the research community and industry leading to new opportunities for start-up companies or launching co-development programs with established companies.
  • The plenary speakers include Professor Chunying Chen from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who will discuss how our own proteins influence drug delivery, Professor Joe Wang from University of California San Diego on nanorockets and nanomachines for drug delivery and sensing, Professor Ranjeny Thomas from the University of Queensland who will discuss the latest developments in immune therapy, Professor Alan Rowan from the University of Queensland on smart materials for nanomedicine, and Professor Irene Yarovsky from RMIT on how to control protein adsorption on manmade materials.

What: UNSW presents the 10th International Nanomedicine ConferenceWhere: Pier One Sydney Harbour Hotel, SydneyWhen: Monday 24 to Wednesday 26 June 2019