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The sensor, which sits on a microchip, is 1,000 times more sensitive than cancer detectors used clinically today, according to scientists at Stanford, in Palo Alto, Calif. The researchers announced this week that the sensors have been effective in finding early-stage tumors in mice, giving them hope that it can be equally successful in detecting elusive cancers in humans.
"In the early stage [of a cancer], the protein biomarker level in blood is very, very low, so you need ultra-sensitive technology to detect it," said Shan Wang, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford, in a statement. "If you can detect it early, you can have early intervention and you have a much better chance to cure that person."
Wang also noted that the biosensor could be used to determine whether chemotherapy or other cancer treatments are working after only a few days. It currently takes months to determine the success of such treatments.
The sensor is able to detect cancer-associated protein biomarkers at a concentration as low as one part out of a hundred billion, according to Stanford.
Nanotechnology has been a key part of a lot of cancer-fighting research efforts in recent months.
Late last month, researchers at the University of Toronto also used nanomaterials to develop a microchip they say is also sensitive enough to detect early stage cancer when it is most treatable. The chip is designed to detect the type of cancer and its severity.
And in August, scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine announced that a team of researchers are creating "nanobees" to fight cancerous tumors. They are using nanoparticles to deliver the primary component of bee venom, called melittin, through the body to kill cancerous tumor cells. In an experiment with mice, the nanobees were used to target cancerous tumors and effectively halted their growth, researchers said. In some cases, they added, the nanobees caused the tumors to shrink.
Also in August, researchers at MIT announced that they had used nanoparticles to deliver genes that killed ovarian tumors in mice . The researchers said the tests could lead to a new treatment for ovarian cancer.
The Stanford researchers arranged an array of 64 nanosensors on a microchip. Each sensor can be set to detect a different kind of cancer biomarker.
"The idea that you could essentially ... measure a broad diversity of biomolecules that are at such a wide range of concentrations with such sensitivity is really, truly remarkable," said Charles Drescher, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington, in a statement. "I think we'll all be very excited if this really does pan out."