Nanoscale technology is infiltrating everything from computers to cars to clothing. Such tiny tech – 80,000 to 100,000 times smaller than a single strand of human hair – may also become the basis for a next generation cancer detection and monitoring system.

Dr Daniel Roxbury with microscope

A device just one nanometer in diameter, which can be inserted under the skin, may one day be able to signal the onset, progression, or spread of cancer, and alert doctors so they can take action more quickly.

Once cancer starts to grow aggressively or spread from its original location (metastasize) it becomes much harder to treat. That’s why a sensor that could keep an eye out for the onset of cancer or metastasis from inside a person’s body – sending doctors information in real time – could prove to be a game-changer in cancer detection and treatment.

This early warning system would allow doctors to administer drugs more accurately and sooner – ultimately helping to reduce the number of cancer-related deaths, according to its chemical engineer developer, Daniel Roxbury, Ph.D. Roxbury is a research fellow at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York. His work is funded in part by a $150,000 grant from the American Cancer Society – Roaring Fork Valley Donor Group.

Building a Sensor Nearly 100,000 Times Thinner Than a Sheet of Paper

The sensor is built with carbon nanotubes – very small cylinder-shaped carbon fibers. It works by detecting the presence and level of a specific biomarker in the blood that signals the progression and spread of cancer. Roxbury says that certain cancer cells shed a biomarker termed uPA (urokinase plasminogen activator ), which is associated with many different types of cancers. His device is trying to monitor for an increase in uPA in a person’s bloodstream.

DNA-wrapped carbon nanotubeThe nanotube by itself is just the carrier for Roxbury’s technology. To make his sensor, Roxbury first wraps the carbon nanotube in DNA and then attaches what is called the uPA binding antibody – the molecule that can detect uPA itself. These pieces work together to do the sensing.

“The antibody conveys the message to the nanotube and the nanotube gives a readout of how much of the uPA molecule is detected,” says Roxbury. “Nanotubes are very sensitive to their environment, which makes them very good sensors.”

Roxbury’s work is in the very early stages of development and testing. He is currently testing the sensor in a water solution.

Once he gets it working properly in that medium, he will move on to testing it in a more complex type of solution such as blood and then on to mice, which he hopes to do in the next 2 years. If testing goes well in animals, then Roxbury can move his device on to clinical testing in people.

Pairing Sensor With a Smart Device for Real-Time Monitoring in People

He is still working out how exactly the technology would play out in people. Roxbury currently envisions a doctor inserting the sensor via a gel-like substance under the skin through a minimally invasive procedure. The patient would then have an external device, like a smart watch or smart phone that could pick up the signals from the nanotube sensor and track the levels of the cancer biomarker in the person’s blood – similar in a sense to how a heart monitor works.

The patient could monitor for the presence of the markers as many as times as they like, perhaps even multiple times during the day. “Your device on the outside would be able to read the message the nanotube is sending out,” says Roxbury.

Roxbury says the device could be suitable for tracking a variety of different types of cancers. The target patients would be those who are at risk for cancer – perhaps due to their family medical history or to having certain pre-cancerous conditions.

Additionally, the device could help track cancer in patients who already have or have had cancer. The sensor, says Roxbury, could “detect the progression of early-stage cancers to metastatic states,” as well as “be used to monitor in real time for recurrences for patients in remission.”

“If you can detect biomarkers in the blood at a super low concentration, you can save so many lives; the problem is detecting cancer when it is late and there isn’t as much you can do,” says Roxbury. He has high hopes for his sensor technology, though. “With the current treatments we have, I am pretty sure we can cure most cancers by detecting them early.”


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