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19th February 2020
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Fast diagnosis saves lives

Posted 05/06/2012 by sevans

Developments in analytical instrumentation continue to defy expectation by detecting ever more minute traces of matter. On the environmental front, such advances are treated with a mixture of enthusiasm for the greater degree of accuracy they bring, tinged with concern that such unprecedented levels of surveillance may fuel unwarranted health or other worries. On the medical front, however, they can only be a good thing. Being able to detect biomolecules at microscopic levels brings the possibility of developing ultra-sensitive tests to detect the signs and symptoms of disease in its earliest stages, hopefully well before it results in damage to the individual and while there is still a chance for swift remedial action aimed at both prevention and cure.

This, at least, is the objective of new research published in the current issue of Nature Materials, by scientists at Imperial College London, UK, and colleagues at the University of Vigo in Galicia, Spain. The researchers have created a biosensor test to detect levels of Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) – a biomarker associated with prostate cancer – at concentrations of 0.00000000000000001g per millilitre – about nine orders of magnitude more dilute than can be detected with a more conventional test, Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA). And the good news is that, while more research will be needed to explore its potential, the researchers claim that it should be possible to reconfigure their biosensor to test for other diseases or viruses where the related biomarker is known.

While some biosensor tests are already available for certain diseases, these typically become less sensitive and predictable at detecting biomarkers when they are in very low concentrations, as occurs when a disease is in its early stages. The biosensors used in the current study comprise nanoscopic-sized gold stars attached to antibodies that latch onto PSA when they detect it in a blood sample. A secondary antibody, attached to the enzyme glucose oxidase, then creates a distinctive silver crystal coating over the gold stars, readily visible when the PSA biomarker is at low concentrations.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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