‘Lab-on-a-chip breakthrough’ could lead to early detection

pharmafield logo - pharma news

Scientists at IBM have developed a ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology that can separate biological particles at the nanoscale and could enable physicians to detect cancer and other diseases such as ‘flu and Zika before symptoms appear. 

Until now, the smallest bioparticle that could be separated by size with on-chip technologies was about 50 times or larger. However, the IBM team’s results, published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, show size-based separation of bioparticles down to 20 nanometers (nm) in diameter, a scale that gives access to important particles such as DNA, viruses and exosomes. Once separated, these particles can potentially be analysed by physicians to reveal signs of disease even before patients experience any physical symptoms and when the outcome from treatment is most positive.

IBM is collaborating with a team from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to continue development of this lab-on-a-chip technology and plans to test it on the most common cancer in men in the US, prostate cancer. 

The IBM team targeted exosomes with their device as existing technologies face challenges for separating and purifying exosomes in liquid biopsies. Exosomes are increasingly being viewed as useful biomarkers for the diagnosis and prognosis of malignant tumors. Released in easily accessible bodily fluids such as blood, saliva or urine, they range in size from 20-140nm and contain information about the health of the originating cell from which they are shed. A determination of the size, surface proteins and nucleic acid cargo carried by exosomes can give essential information about the presence and state of developing cancer and other diseases. 

In the era of precision medicine, exosomes represent a precious biomedical tool as they can be used in the context of less invasive liquid biopsies to reveal the origin and nature of a cancer. 

IBM’s results show they could separate and detect particles as small as 20 nm from smaller particles, that exosomes of size 100 nm and larger could be separated from smaller exosomes, and that separation can take place in spite of diffusion, a hallmark of particle dynamics at these small scales. With Mt. Sinai, the team plans to confirm their device is able to pick up exosomes with cancer-specific biomarkers from patient liquid biopsies.

Gustavo Stolovitzky, Program Director of Translational Systems Biology and Nanobiotechnology at IBM Research, said: “Our lab-on-a-chip device could offer a simple, non-invasive and affordable option to potentially detect and monitor a disease even at its earliest stages, long before physical symptoms manifest. This extra amount of time allows physicians to make more informed decisions and when the prognosis for treatment options is most positive.”