Northwestern researchers develop method to spot cancer early

Alice Yin, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern scientists created a new tool that can detect cancer in its initial stages.

The technology, called the NanoFlare, uses DNA nanoparticles that bind onto tumor cells circulating in the bloodstream. Using a genetic-based approach, the particles are able to locate, enter and mark any cells that contain traces of cancer.

“The NanoFlare turns on a light in the cancer cells you are looking for,” Dr. Colby Thaxton, an assistant professor of urology at NU’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a news release. “That the NanoFlares are effective in the complex matrix of human blood is a great technical advance. We can find small numbers of cancer cells in blood, which really is like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

With this advance, potentially cancerous cells can be targeted before a tumor develops. NanoFlare can track suspicious cells by probing their genetic code for specific biomarkers. In contrast, current technology only looks at proteins on the cell’s surface.

By marking affected cells, NanoFlare also allows the patient’s cancer to be studied. This approach allows for more personalized treatment.

“Cancers are very genetically diverse, and it’s important to know what cancer subtype a patient has,” Chad Mirkin, a nanomedicine expert and a corresponding author of the study, said in a news release. “Now you can think about collecting a patient’s cells and studying how those cells respond to different therapies. The way a patient responds to treatment depends on the genetic makeup of the cancer.”

NU scientists used a culture of breast cancer cells in their research, which lit up when the NanoFlare bound to the cells’ genetic targets. Although not all tumor cells end up spreading, analysis of cells marked through NanoFlare can identify those cells that will be a threat.

The study will be published this week.

“When it comes to detecting and treating cancer, the mantra is the earlier, the better,” Thaxton said in the release. “This technology may enable us to better detect circulating cancer cells and provides another tool to add to the toolkit of cancer diagnosis.”

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