Dip-stick cancer testing?

Technology Review has a very interesting article about new technology for detecting very small amounts of proteins that may be associated with cancers (biomarkers) in the blood. It holds the prospect of enabling quick, relatively non-invasive, cheap early detection devices.

Biomedical researchers have been discovering more and more proteins
that reveal the presence of a cancer before its symptoms appear — and
while its treatment success rate is still high. Yet turning these
findings into quick, accurate, and inexpensive diagnostic tests has
proven difficult….

According to Lieber (the technology researcher), the device, which uses nanowires to detect
telltale cancer proteins, could lead to inexpensive and highly-accurate
tests — people could even buy them in a local drugstore and perform
the testing themselves. "We can take a very small amount of blood and
with a very simple filtration step get an answer within five minutes,"
Lieber says, adding that the device has "a sensitivity a thousand times
better" than in a lab…

The problem is that levels of a single telltale protein can differ
from case to case, making an assay based on one protein inherently
unreliable. Sidransky says that Lieber’s method of measuring multiple
biomarkers simultaneously has the potential to "diagnose the vast
majority of people very accurately."

In fact, according to Lieber, the "biggest advantage" of the
nanowire detectors is that they could detect "10 or 100 things in
parallel" without adding cost to the test….

Because the device gives results in real time, it could be used to
monitor the effectiveness of cancer treatments. Right now, Lieber
explains, the amount of drug a patient depends on his or her weight.
Yet each person responds differently to different treatments. With such
a nano-device, though, one could "fine-tune the dosage to make
treatment much more effective."

Almost sounds too good to be true. Well, it’s still just research. Application often isn’t as clear cut. However, if the technology can fulfill the promise suggested here, it would be a big step forward. Of course, detecting protein biomarkers is only the first step to reaching a definitive diagnosis. But early warning is always desirable. And speaking of warning, this article should be a heads-up to the kinds of things that may be reaching the public in the not-too-distant future and and about which people will be wanting guidance from the Society.

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