Chemists sniff out cancer with new nose-like sensor array

A sensor array system of gold nanoparticles and proteins utilized by chemists at University of Massachusetts Amherst can reportedly “sniff” out different kinds of cancer in a similar fashion to the human nose.

We know the smell of money. We know the smell of freshly baked cookies. And now, we can pick up the scent of metastatic cells, hypothetically speaking that is.

“With this tool, we can now actually detect and identify metastasized tumor cells in living animal tissue rapidly and effectively using the ‘nose’ strategy,” said lead chemist Vincent Rotello, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a news release. “We were the first group to use this approach in cells, which is relatively straightforward. Now we’ve done it in tissues and organs, which are very much more complex. With this advance, we’re much closer to the promise of a general diagnostic test.

Such findings combined the pre-clinical non-small-cell lung cancer metastasis model in mice developed by Frank Jirik and colleagues at the University of Calgary with the Rotello team’s sensor array system. Researchers acquired a healthy tissue sample as well as a mouse tumor sample, and then trained the nanoparticle-GFP (green fluorescent protein) sensor array to recognize the cancerous tissue. The sensor was able to identify the metastases in a matter of minutes. 

“Smell ‘A’ generates a pattern in the nose, a unique set of activated receptors, and these are different for every smell we encounter,” Rotello explained. “Smell ‘B’ has a different pattern. Your brain will instantly recognize each, even if the only time you ever smelled it was 40 years ago. In the same way, we can tune or teach our nanoparticle array to recognize many healthy tissues, so it can immediately recognize something that’s even a little bit ‘off,’ that is, very subtly different from normal. It’s like a ‘check engine’ light, and assigns a different pattern to each ‘wrong’ tissue. The sensitivity is exquisite, and very powerful.”

Such nano scent, while awesome and commanding, can also be quite subtle, Rotello noted.

“It’s sensitive to really subtle differences,” says Rotello. “Even though two cheeses may look the same, our noses can tell a nicely ripe one from a cheese that’s a few days past tasting good. In the same way, once we train the sensor array we can identify whether a tissue sample is healthy or not and what kind of cancer it is with very high accuracy. The sensitivity is impressive from a sample of only about 2,000 cells, a microbiopsy that’s less invasive for patients.”

This new method provides a quick and relatively effective means of identifying cancer and potentially other diseases. Study authors noted the additional ability of the sensor to differentiate between low (parental) and high (bone, adrenal and ovary) metastases, along with site-specific cells such as breast, liver, lung and prostate cancers. If it were to succeed in humans, it could revolutionize cancer treatment indefinitely.

“Overall, this array-based sensing strategy presents the prospect of unbiased phenotype screening of tissue states arising from genetic variations and differentiation state.”

The findings were published in the current issue of the journal ACS Nano.

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