Finding out you have cancer is bad enough, but to then have to go to hospital for a painful and invasive biopsy to try to identify the exact type of tumour can be deeply traumatic.
But that may soon be a thing of the past: new, cheap devices the size of a silicon chip could provide the same information from a simple urine test.
Better yet, these tiny devices, based on networks of fluid channels thinner than human hairs, have the potential to distinguish between different strains of the same cancer, enabling personalised treatment.
Precise analysis of the biomarkers is carried out with specifically designed nanotechnology: surfaces lined with intricate shapes, or molecules that attract specific species. Other approaches employ electrical, magnetic or acoustic fields to help select the biomarker target, and even have smarts: in-built electronic circuits for data processing.
A handful of devices are already on the market, such as CellSearch, which identifies tumour cells from colon, breast and prostate cancer in blood samples. However, [researcher Ciprian] Iliescu says many more will come online in the next few years.
“The technology is there, the methods are there, it’s a matter of optimising them,” he says
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