Detecting cancer-causing genes
Research colleagues Samir Iqbal and Shawn Christensen don’t believe people have “bad genes.” They do believe people have genes that predispose them to certain bad things, like cancer.
Dr. Iqbal, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Dr. Christensen, a genetic biologist, are perfecting a system that will help physicians prescribe better therapy or advocate healthier behaviors for patients predisposed to those maladies.
The researchers have created a system that detects a gene mutation implicated in 90 percent of pancreatic cancers and often in lung cancer by running tiny amounts of blood over nanomaterials. The process uses about a quarter of a milliliter of blood, or a little more than the amount a diabetic needs to test for blood glucose.
“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 says. “We use electrical detection to fish for certain genes and detect these from very, very small samples.”
“IF A DISEASE HAS A KNOWN GENETIC COMPONENT, WE CAN TELL YOU WHETHER YOU HAVE THE GENE THAT MIGHT LEAD TO THE DISEASE.”
Christensen explains that there are many 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 recombination. Some mutations can predispose an individual to a given disease; others may lead to protection from the same or a different disease.
“Our work could be used to detect any genetic marker,” Christensen says. “If a disease has a known genetic component, we can tell you whether you have the gene that might lead to the disease.”
The research could benefit millions of people who acquire diseases like cancer from inherited or malfunctioning genes.
Other processes exist to produce the same results, but they require detection of fluorescent dyes or radioactive modification of samples. They also need more labor or bulky, expensive machinery.
“We could incorporate our electrical detection process into a small hand-held device that could be used outside the laboratory, or ideally in the comfort of one’s living room,” Iqbal says.
He and Christensen published a paper in the journal Applied Physics Letters that presents proof of concept of their process. The work was chosen as the cover story for a recent issue. They also presented their findings at the National Institutes of Health campus in a joint workshop of the NIH and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.