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Last Updated: Friday, 30 December 2005, 00:21 GMT
Tiny biosensor to detect cancer
Lab tubes
The sensor looks for key proteins
Scientists are developing a tiny biosensor to detect cancer proteins and potentially the bug that causes MRSA.

It makes use of the same gyroscope technology as navigation systems and car airbags.

The aim is to incorporate it into a hand-held device for quick and easy analysis of tissue samples.

The European Union has awarded international researchers, led by the University of Newcastle, a 12m euro grant to refine the technology.

Early diagnosis and effective monitoring of cancers are known to be key factors influencing outcome
Professor Calum McNeil

The vibrating disc is no bigger than a speck of dust.

It is hoped it could enable doctors to diagnose and monitor common types of cancer, and to assess which is the most appropriate therapy.

The device would work by identifying cancer markers - proteins or other molecules produced by cancer cells.

These vary according to the type of cancer and are distinct from proteins produced by healthy cells.

Surface coating

The researchers have manufactured discs less than one-tenth of a millimetre in diameter and coated them with special patterns of DNA or proteins which cause the cancer-specific markers to bind to the surface.

The discs are created in a silicon wafer and made to vibrate electronically in two modes.

When a cancer-specific marker binds to the surface of a disc, in the pattern of the coating, the uneven weight causes one of the modes of vibration to change in frequency.

The difference between the frequencies of the two modes of vibration is measured, enabling the detection of tiny amounts of cancer specific marker.

In theory, even the weight of a single molecule binding to the surface of a disc could be detected.

Lead researcher Professor Calum McNeil, said: "We are confident that this new technology has the potential to improve the prospects of successful treatment for these cancers.

"Early diagnosis and effective monitoring of cancers are known to be key factors influencing outcome.

"In addition, the technology could provide specialists with advice about the most appropriate therapy for a particular patient, since the devices could easily be connected to sources of information such as a hospital computer network, the internet or a mobile phone."

Other applications

The technology could eventually be developed for a range of other diseases, including those caused by bacteria.

This opens up the possibility of hospitals being able to screen new patients and visitors for MRSA, tuberculosis and other diseases to prevent the infections being carried into the wards.

Potential uses do not stop at medicine. In theory, the technology could be used to detect particles from biological or chemical weapons, providing an early warning system against terrorist attacks.

Dr Kat Arney, cancer information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "Thanks to research we know more and more about the molecules that are faulty in cancer cells

"Once the gyroscope technology is fully developed, these miniature machines could prove useful for spotting cancers at an early stage.

"It's important to work on new ways to diagnose cancer, as early detection is more likely to lead to successful treatment."


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