SALT LAKE CITY -- Building on advances made in high-speed, high-sensitivity magnetic sensing, a team of University of Utah researchers has been awarded a five-year, $2.3 million federal grant to create a nanotechnology-based platform for the early detection of pancreatic cancer.
The team will build upon an existing prototype to develop a fully-functional magnetic sensor and associated analytical tools. The goal is to produce an instrument that can, in a matter of seconds using a drop of blood or other bodily fluid, identify and quantify hundreds of protein biomarkers that may indicate the presence of cancer.
The grant was awarded under the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer program run by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Alliance seeks to leverage nanotechnology to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer.
Directing the research team are USTAR researcher Marc Porter of the Departments of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Pathology and Sean J. Mulvihill Chair of the Department of Surgery at the university's School of Medicine and senior director of clinical affairs at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Co-director of the Nano Institute of Utah, Porter has worked on the sensor for several years.
"We announced a magnetic assay device in October 2008. Over the last two years, we've done a lot of the basic research, and demonstrated the merits of the concept. This grant will help us take the approach to another level," Porter said.
The project targets pancreatic cancer as the first step in platform development and performance validation. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. "The five-year survival rate is about four percent," Porter said. "That's the lowest of any cancer, and underscores the importance of the project. Currently there are few disease markers that can be detected early enough to have value in treating the cancer."
The scanner uses technology similar to a laptop disk drive or music CD reader. Sensors can detect minute magnetic fluctuations, and the team seeks to develop a livery of magnetic nanoparticles that have distinct electronic 'signatures' that the instrument can recognize.
By aligning a specific magnetic nanoparticle with an antibody that in turn binds to a specific protein and then reading the nanoparticle/protein combinations on a chip array, the device can profile different proteins simultaneously, a process called multiplexing. "What we expect to find are specific markers or groups of markers that may indicate the onset of pancreatic cancer before the patient even begins to feel ill," Porter said.
Research has identified approximately 200 proteins to be studied. "Part of this study will be to narrow the number of candidate markers, the presence or absence of which may be significant," Porter said. "There's a lot of statistical analysis that goes into solving this problem. The grant will help us run scans on a very large sample base to spot the correlations."
Mulvihill sees enormous potential with this technology. "Our critical need today is to identify biomarkers that can stratify patients in a way that will allow us to individualize their therapy," he said. "The problem is complex because of the heterogeneity of both the patients themselves and their tumors."
He believes that biomarkers will have roles in earlier diagnosis of pancreas cancer, predicting response to specific therapies, and stratifying patients in terms of prognosis and risk of complications of treatment.
In the long run, Porter envisions the scanner as an element of quick, inexpensive, ubiquitous healthcare delivery. These scanners could potentially be manufactured at a cost low enough to place them in local clinics, hospitals, and even retail pharmacies. With automation, operating them would not take a lot of training, and the results could be delivered quickly to the patient's physician, Porter said.
The team includes scientists, engineers and clinicians. Michael Granger, research scientist on the USTAR Nano Biosensors team, is spearheading device fabrication, and Ken Boucher, research associate professor in the Department of Oncological Sciences, is the team's biostatistician. Matthew Firpo is another key team member with extensive expertise in molecular biology and clinical marker discovery, and is a research assistant professor in the University's Department of Surgery.
The NCI awarded 34 grants in the latest phase of the Alliance Initiative. The University of Utah joins such organizations as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Emory University.
The University of Utah project, "Magnetoresistive Sensor Platform for Parallel Cancer Marker Detection," described in this story was supported by Award Number U01CA151650 from the National Cancer Institute. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Cancer Institute or the National Institutes of Health.