March 6 - Swiss-based scientists are developing a device that will find chemical markers for cancer in a drop of blood. The team from EPFL in Lausanne says the hand-held device will enable doctors to make diagnoses very early in the disease process, thereby improving outcomes for patients. Jim Drury reports.
Sebastian Maerkl and his team are creating a hand-held machine to test patients for cancer using just a drop of their blood. They say it could break new ground for early detection and treatment. A blood sample is placed on a glass chip containing hundreds of microchannels. PhD student Jose Luis Garcia says each microchannel contains tiny gold structures treated with a natural anti-body designed to trap specific blood-borne proteins, which are typically overexpressed in the blood of cancer patients. SOUNDBITE (English) JOSE LUIS GARCIA CORDERO, PhD STUDENT, SAYING: "This glass slide has 384 individual samples spotted on it. The spot, the diameter of each spot is about 300 microns." But 300 microns is big enough to detect an overexpression of the proteins in the blood sample...biomarkers that could indicate the presence of cancer somewhere in the body. Maerkl says such discoveries could enable earlier diagnosis. SOUNDBITE (English) SEBASTIAN MAERKL (PRON: MERKEL), PROFESSOR OF BIOENGINEERING AT EPFL, SAYING: "If you catch a disease earlier it's easier to treat, so your prognosis is better, your chance or survival or being cured. Second, if that's the case then it generally requires less hospitalisation, drug treatment etc., so it has a significant decrease in healthcare costs." Professor Keith Jones, from the UK-based Institute Of Cancer Research, says the EPFL team's work is promising. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR KEITH JONES, PROFESSOR OF SYNTHETIC CHEMISTRY AT INSTITUTE OF CANCER RESEARCH, SAYING: "Early stage detection of cancer is undoubtedly one of the best ways of treating it. However, you do need another method of determining whether you are suffering from cancer.....Other biomarkers may be much more general and may just indicate that there is a possibility of cancer somewhere in the body and then you would need to go and perhaps have a scan or some other physical examination to confirm that early sign, potential early sign, of cancer." Once ready for manufacture the device will be marketed to doctors. But Maerkl says that before long they could even be found in the home. SOUNDBITE (English) SEBASTIAN MAERKL (PRON: MERKEL), PROFESSOR OF BIOENGINEERING AT EPFL, SAYING: "In the future we'll hopefully have this little instrument that's sitting on everybody's bench or coffee table, whatever, at home, and all you need to do is stick your finger in. The machine will sample your blood for hundreds of different biomarkers and you can do that on a continuous basis." The team's work is part of the Spedoc European research project. They say their prototype could be ready within two years.