Researchers use gold nanoparticles to detect cancer risk

A simple, quick and inexpensive blood-screening method could mark a breakthrough in detecting people who are at risk from the disease

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 2015, 3:44am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 2015, 3:44am


Qun "Treen" Huo grew up in Hunan province, tagging along with her grandparents to government farm fields to work, picking peanuts and whatever was in season. From those days, she harvested lessons for a lifetime.

"You always look at things in a more complicated way. I learned to pay attention to what people say. Pay attention to what the problem is. Never said yes, never said no so easily, because you don't know what the truth is until you're absolutely sure," she says.

Now, Huo leads a team of University of Central Florida researchers who have developed a blood test that uses gold nanoparticles to show whether someone is at a higher risk of developing prostate cancer and potentially other types of cancer.

The team is still in early stages of developing the test, but Huo, 46, says say the blood test is simple, inexpensive and quick. She envisions the test to one day be available in doctors' offices and drugstores.

"We want to develop a screening test for people 45 years and older, so if we detect unusual immune activity and you're not really sick, we just say your risk of having cancer is high," says Huo, associate professor at NanoScience Technology Centre at the UCF department of chemistry.

Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers among men in the United States. This year, more than 220,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, and nearly 27,500 will die from it. Some three million men living today have had a prostate-cancer diagnosis at some point, according to the American Cancer Society.

Gold nanoparticles are used broadly in biomedicine because of their strong light-scattering properties, which makes them easy to track. When mixed with blood, the tiny gold particles attract proteins, including antibodies, that are even smaller. Some of these antibodies, researchers have found, are formed as a result of the body's immune response to early-stage tumours.

Huo and her team found that when they added a certain chemical to this mix, the gold nanoparticles that had tumour-specific antibodies clumped together, creating larger clusters, which were detected and measured in a device the size of a large laptop bag. These clusters were not found in the samples taken from individuals who did not have cancer.

Dr Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, who was not involved in the study, says: "When I look at this, what I see is certainly interesting and elegant research in terms of technology, but as with many similar efforts, there's still much to be accomplished to move it from a finding in the lab to something that has an impact on everyday lives of people we care for."

The study, funded by the Department of Defence Prostate Cancer Research Programme, was published in the journal of Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Huo is not likely to give up on her research even if she bumps into hurdles. She is driven by an intense sense of curiosity and a desire to know the unknown.

"Anything during this process could fail. But the question is if you fail, do you leave it as it is or do you try to solve the problem and make it work better?

"Me, I would not leave it as it is. I will keep going until I solve this problem."