Because the signature biomarkers that indicate the presence of cancer at the cellular level are generally present only at low levels in biological samples, detecting them is a procedure that usually takes days and involves a room filled with computers. Now researchers have used nanomaterials to develop a microchip small enough to fit in a device the size of a mobile phone, and sensitive enough to do the job in 30 minutes.

The research team at the University of Toronto (UofT) led by Shana Kelley, a professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Medicine, and Ted Sargent, UofT's Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology, found that conventional, flat metal electrical sensors were inadequate to sense cancer's particular biomarkers, so they designed and fabricated a chip and decorated it with nanometer-sized wires and molecular "bait."

By uniting DNA with miniaturized electronic chips, the team was able to develop a chip the size of a fingertip that can analyze a sample and measure biomolecules within half an hour. The team tested their microchip platform on prostate cancer and head and neck cancer models, but say it could potentially be used to diagnose and assess other cancers, as well as infectious diseases such as HIV, MRSA and H1N1 flu.

Dr. Tom Hudson, president and scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research says, "the discovery by Dr. Kelley and her team offers the possibility of a faster, more cost-effective technology that could be used anywhere, speeding up diagnosis and helping to deliver a more targeted treatment to the patient."

The UofT’s research, which was carried out in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team from Princess Margaret Hospital and Queen's University, is detailed in the journal ACS Nano.