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Chipping away at Cancer

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June 26, 2012

# Three Northeastern student-researchers have developed a screening chip to detect colorectal cancer.

In the last two decades, the number of deaths from col­orectal cancer has steadily declined, according to the Amer­ican Cancer Society. While some of the decrease can be attrib­uted to better treat­ment prac­tices, early detec­tion is another pri­mary factor. Nonethe­less, col­orectal cancer is still the second leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S., and is expected to be respon­sible for more than 50,000 deaths in 2012.

"Each of us has wit­nessed cancer in our home," said phar­ma­ceu­tical sci­ences grad­uate stu­dent Jaydev Upponi, who has helped design a new tech­nology to "give back, to con­tribute sci­ence that could help in the long run."

Upponi and his class­mates, elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering grad­uate stu­dent Asan­terabi Malima and mechan­ical engi­neering grad­uate stu­dent Cihan Yilmaz, recently founded a com­pany to develop a screening chip that uses nanopar­ti­cles to detect col­orectal cancer ear­lier than cur­rently possible.

Cur­rent detec­tion and mon­i­toring strate­gies include expen­sive and often inac­cu­rate tests such as a colonoscopy, the suc­cess of which depends on the com­pe­tency of the exam­iner. An emerging screening assay, on the other hand, ana­lyzes blood sam­ples for a cancer-​​specific pro­tein called car­ci­noem­bry­onic antigen, or CEA. But cur­rent CEA screens have high thresh­olds and require large blood vol­umes and sig­nif­i­cant blood sample prepa­ra­tion, which make them expen­sive, time con­suming and less sensitive.

"We saw that we have a tech­nology that can address some of these con­cerns for diag­nosis and mon­i­toring," said Malima, a member of Northeastern's NSF-​​funded Center for High-​​rate Nanoman­u­fac­turing.

Using their exper­tise acquired in the labs of Ahmed Bus­naina, the William Lin­coln Smith Pro­fessor of Mechan­ical and Indus­trial Engi­neering, and Vladimir Torchilin, a Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Phar­ma­ceu­tical Sci­ences, the student-​​researchers devel­oped a 0.25-millimeter chip that can detect very low con­cen­tra­tions of bio­markers in the blood such as CEA. alled nuchip, the tech­nology could also be applied to a variety of other bio­markers, such as BNP, a pro­tein asso­ci­ated with con­ges­tive heart failure.

"First we coat nanopar­ti­cles with CEA-​​specific anti­bodies," Yilmaz said of the design process. "Then we assemble the nanopar­ti­cles onto the chip."

The anti­bodies bind to CEA, the amount of which will deter­mine whether blood con­cen­tra­tion levels are above normal.

The team will ini­tially use the device to mon­itor patients who are already being treated for col­orectal cancer. "Mon­i­toring is a way to see if their treat­ment is effec­tive or not. It can be extremely cru­cial espe­cially in rapidly growing col­orectal can­cers, to detect increases in the bio­marker," Upponi said. "I think that's one area where our device can be extremely beneficial."

The data the researchers col­lect from these mon­i­toring studies will allow them to estab­lish guide­lines for using the chip to diag­nose cancer in the future. "Part of our work right now is answering ques­tions like 'What should be our clin­ical sen­si­tivity and speci­ficity?'" Malima said.

Because the chip can be engi­neered to detect a variety of bio­markers at once (by using a variety of anti­bodies to coat the nanopar­ti­cles), the tech­nology could also be very useful in the emerging field of per­son­al­ized med­i­cine, using nuchip devices designed for spe­cific pop­u­la­tions. Three North­eastern student-​​researchers have devel­oped a screening chip that uses nanopar­ti­cles to detect col­orectal cancer ear­lier than ever before.

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