Researchers show plugging a nanopore sensor with gold could help detect ovarian cancer

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have shown that a urine-based test could have the potential to become a simplified screening method for catching earlier cases of ovarian cancer.

While previous studies have established the presence of certain peptides in the urine of people with growing ovarian tumors, sifting those biomarkers out on a large scale has proven complicated and costly. 

To make the process more straightforward and potentially accessible, the researchers’ method put a twist on nanopore sequencing, a next-generation method for parsing genetic material.

Nanopore sequencing typically takes a strand of DNA or RNA and feeds it through a tiny hole, then records the fluctuations in electric current across the pore that are triggered by the passing bases—allowing it to discern the difference between Gs, As, Ts and Cs.

In order to read larger peptide chains, the researchers’ approach involves partially blocking off the pore with a gold nanoparticle. As more than a dozen particular peptides begin to stick to the particle, it starts to produce a unique electrical current signature.

“It's like a fingerprint that basically tells us what the peptide is,” Joseph Reiner, department chair of experimental biophysics and nanoscience at VCU, said in a statement. The researchers’ study was presented at the annual meeting of the Biophysical Society in Philadelphia. 

The team aims to develop a test that could be used alongside cancer-detecting blood tests and ultrasound exams to help improve the detection of early-stage ovarian cancer. 

“Clinical data shows a 50% to 75% improvement in five-year survival when cancers are detected at their earliest stages. This is true across numerous cancer types,” Reiner said.