IBM lab-on-a-chip detects cancer at the nanoscale

Detecting cancer before symptoms appear could catch it while it is easier to treat, potentially leading to better treatments. To that end, IBM scientists have come up with new lab-on-a-chip tech that separates bioparticles on a much smaller scale than previously possible.

The study results, reported in Nature Nanotechnology, show the technology can separate biological particles on the nanoscale, a scale up to 50 times smaller than previously possible. This unprecedented capability allows physicians to analyze particles, such as DNA, viruses and exosomes, for signs of disease before physical symptoms manifest.

The device uses nanoscale deterministic lateral displacement, or nano-DLD, to allow a liquid sample to pass continuously through a silicon chip, according to an IBM statement. The chip has an asymmetric array of pillars, which then sorts a “microscopic waterfall” of nanoparticles, which are separated according to size. The chip measures 2 cm by 2 cm.

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Exosomes, secreted in easily collected bodily fluids, such as saliva and urine, are gaining momentum as useful biomarkers to detect malignant tumors. The IBM tech addresses some challenges faced by current technologies used for less invasive liquid biopsy. The lab-on-a-chip was able to separate particles as small as 20 nanometers, and separate smaller exosomes from larger ones. Analysis of exosome size, as well as of surface proteins, can inform physicians about the state of cancer and other diseases, according to IBM.

IBM is developing the tech for the detection of prostate cancer in collaboration with scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The duo will test the device’s ability to detect exosomes with prostate cancer-specific biomarkers from liquid biopsies.

In addition to detecting cancer and other diseases such as influenza or Zika early, the Mount Sinai team hopes the tech can provide insight on the biology of disease. It can act as a way to “eavesdrop on the messages carried by exosomes for cell-to-cell communications,” thus increasing understanding of the progression of disease, according to the statement.

“By bringing together Mount Sinai’s domain expertise in cancer and pathology with IBM’s systems biology experience and its latest nanoscale separation technology, the hope is to look for specific, sensitive biomarkers in exosomes that represent a new frontier to offering clues that might hold the answer to whether a person has cancer or how to treat it,” said Dr. Carlos Cordon-Cardo, professor and chairman for the Mount Sinai Health System Department of Pathology, in the statement.

- here's the release

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