IBM’s lab-on-a-chip may help detect cancer early

Tuesday, Aug 2, 2016,16:42 IST By Metrovaartha A A A

New York | Scientists at IBM have developed a new lab-on-a-chip technology that can, for the first time, separate biological particles at the nanoscale and could help detect diseases such as cancer before symptoms appear.

Researchers showed size-based separation of bioparticles down to 20 nanometres (nm) in diameter, a scale that gives access to important particles such as DNA, viruses and exosomes.

Once separated, these particles can be analysed to potentially unveil signs of disease even before patients experience any physical symptoms and when the outcome from treatment is most positive. Until now, the smallest bioparticle that could be separated by size with on-chip technologies was about 50 times or larger, for example, separation of circulating tumour cells from other biological components.

Exosomes are increasingly being viewed as biomarkers for the diagnosis and prognosis of malignant tumours. They are released in easily accessible bodily fluids such as saliva, urine or blood. They represent a precious biomedical tool as they can be used in the context of less invasive liquid biopsies to unveil the origin and nature of a cancer.

Researchers targeted exosomes with their lab-on-chip technology as existing scientific techniques face challenges for separating and purifying exosomes in liquid biopsies. Exosomes range in size from 20-140nm and contain information about the health of the originating cell that they are shed from.

A determination of the size, surface proteins and nucleic acid cargo carried by exosomes can give essential information about the presence and state of developing cancer and other diseases.

Researchers showed they could separate and detect particles as small as 20 nm from smaller particles, that exosomes of size 100 nm and larger could be separated from smaller exosomes, and that separation can take place in spite of diffusion, a hallmark of particle dynamics at these small scales.

The ability to sort and enrich biomarkers at the nanoscale in chip-based technologies opens the door to understanding diseases such as cancer as well as viruses like the flu or Zika, said Gustavo Stolovitzky, Programme Director of Translational Systems Biology and Nanobiotechnology at IBM Research.

This extra amount of time could allow physicians to make more informed decisions and when the prognosis for treatment options is most positive, said Stolovitzky. With the ability to sort bioparticles at the nanoscale, researchers hope to provide a new method to eavesdrop on the messages carried by exosomes for cell-to-cell communications.

This can elucidate important questions about the biology of diseases as well as pave the way to noninvasive and eventually affordable point-of-care diagnostic tools.

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