ARLINGTON - Researchers at The
University of Texas at Arlington are perfecting a system to detect a gene
mutation implicated in 90 percent of pancreatic cancers and often in lung
cancer by running tiny amounts of blood over nanomaterials.
Their work will help physicians give
more information to patients who are predisposed to certain maladies and
prescribe therapy and healthy behaviors that may delay or eliminate the risk of
Samir Iqbal (left) electrical engineering assistant professor, and Shawn Christensen, assistant professor in biology, work on a collaborative project that more accurately detects certain types of cancer.
The research is “a major
breakthrough that can benefit millions of people who acquire disease like
cancer from their inherited or malfunctioning genes,” according to professors Samir
Iqbal and Shawn Christensen, who are leading the effort.
Iqbal and Christensen said their
process improves speed, electrical detection, sensitivity and portability.
Iqbal, an electrical engineering
assistant professor, and Christensen, an assistant professor and genetic
biologist, have published a paper in the journal Applied Physics Letters that gives proof of concept of their
process. The work was chosen as the cover story for the journal in 2009.
The team also has presented
their work at the National Institutes of Health campus in a joint workshop of
the NIH and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The work
received accolades and the best paper award in 2009.
“What it means potentially is
that anything that is known to be a genetic marker for certain diseases, can be
detected within a few minutes,” Iqbal said. “We use electrical detection to
fish for certain genes and detect these from very, very small samples.”
Christensen said that there are
many different versions, or alleles, of a given gene within a population. Each individual
may have a slightly different variation of a gene due to mutation and genetic
Some mutations can predispose an
individual to a given disease. Others may lead to protection from the same or
different disease. For example, an allele of a trim5α gene was selected for by
natural selection because it protected our ancestors against an ancient
retrovirus, but that same allele contributes to our vulnerability to HIV
infection today, Christensen said.
“Our work could be used to
detect any genetic marker,” Christensen said. “If a disease has a known genetic
component to it, we can tell you whether you have the gene that might lead to
Their screening process uses about
a quarter of a milliliter or blood, or a little more than the amount of blood
needed from a diabetic to test for blood glucose.
Other processes exist to
accomplish similar results, but they require detection of florescence dies or
radioactivity, more labor or bulky, expensive machinery, the researchers said.
“We could incorporate the
electrical detection process we used into a small hand-held device that could
used outside the laboratory,” Iqbal said.
Iqbal is using part of a
five-year, $400,000 National Science Foundation Early CAREER grant to support
the gene mutation research. He is in the third year of that grant. CAREER grants support the early career development
activities of faculty who exemplify outstanding research, excellent teaching
and innovative integration of education and research.
Christensen is supported by a
three-year $677,958 grant from the Molecular and Cellular Biosciences section
of the National Science Foundation to study non-LTR retrotransposons, a class
of selfish mobile genetic elements whose activity has generated 34 percent of the
The team includes a number of
undergraduate and graduate students from Texas, students who ultimately will make
strong contributions to state’s high-tech workforce, the professors said.
The collaborative research
project is representative of the
cutting-edge innovation taking place at The University of Texas at Arlington, a
comprehensive research institution of 33,800 students in the heart of North
Texas. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more.
The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.