Researchers at George Mason University are investigating a remarkable use of nanotechnology that might change the way doctors monitor patients for cancer-indicating biomarkers. These hydrogel nanoparticles, less than one tenth the size of a red blood cell, could function like "smart" sponges, designed to soak up specific proteins in the bloodstream.
According to the researchers, it is conceivable in the future to inject these nanoparticles in the bloodstream, allow them to run through the circulatory system and then harvest them by simple blood withdrawal for analysis. While the nanoparticles are considered to be biologically inert, proper safety trials will have to be performed before their use in patients. In the meantime the particles can be used to harvest candidate biomarkers from a tube of blood drawn from patients.
"There is a tremendous need to identify cancer biomarkers but the biggest problem is that they are usually present in only very minute amounts in the blood," Alessandra Luchini, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher at George Mason University' Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. "We can engineer hydrogel nanoparticles to look for a single biomarker, or a multitude of selected molecules, amid a relatively vast volume of blood."
The hydrogel nanoparticles are built as a lattice of plastic individual components, arranged at the nanoscale, about a millionth of a meter long. The nature of the individual components allows the researchers to modify the size of the holes in the lattice to form sponge-like pores small enough to catch a single protein biomarker.
To entice biomarkers into the pores, Luchini and her colleagues are using "bait" that is specific for either a class of molecules or an individual biomarker. The bait could consist of an electrical charge that can pull the biomarker into an engineered pore or it could consist of sticky molecule, like an antibody, that is designed to adhere to the biomarker's unique shape.
Once it has captured a biomarker and been removed from the patient through a simple blood withdrawal, the hydrogel can be electrically treated to coax biomarkers out of the particles.
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