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Nipping cancer in the bud

Nipping cancer in the bud

Electrical engineering Assistant Professor Samir Iqbal is creating nanopores made of silicon to more accurately and quickly record how they change when blood samples are run through them. The research could help predict, at very early stages, whether a person has cancer or another life-threatening disease or is predisposed to certain diseases.

Samir Iqbal knew that if he could create uniform artificial nanopores made of silicon, he could more accurately and more quickly record how those nanopores changed when blood samples were run through them. That data could then predict, at very early stages, whether a person has cancer or another life-threatening disease or is predisposed to a certain disease or condition.

Armed with a National Science Foundation grant, the electrical engineering assistant professor leads a multidisciplinary team that is building these nanopores, which can detect “bad molecules” that are early indicators of cancer. Dr. Iqbal, a nanotechnology expert, is working with Purnendu “Sandy” Dasgupta, the Jenkins Garrett Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Richard Timmons, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry.

“We'll be able to detect even a few hundred copies of bad molecules to identify risks of diseases like cancer.”

Nanopores are tiny openings about 1,000 times smaller than a human pore or a human hair. They’re made in very thin silicon chips of the same material found in computer processors and memory.

The team will run human blood-derived samples through the nanopores and record how the composition may change as a function of disease. They will measure the reaction between ions of blood and nanopores and compare the data with other non-reactive nanopores, which will determine abnormal levels of chemicals that indicate whether a disease is present at the molecular level.

“We know many variants of certain chemicals like enantiomers or the abnormal amounts of certain chemicals like cholesterol. These chemicals tell us if someone is subject to certain diseases,” Iqbal says. “Now we will be able to detect these variants at extremely small amounts and in a portable system format. We’ll be able to detect even a few hundred copies of bad molecules to identify risks of diseases like cancer. That is very, very early detection.”

Enantiomers are mirror-imaged optical isomers or compounds with the same molecular formula but different structural shapes, such as a pair of human hands. They are mirror images of each other but not superimposable.

An example is thalidomide, a drug introduced in the late 1950s to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. One enantiomer of the drug was found to be a good sedative for morning sickness. However, its mirror image caused birth defects, leading to thalidomide being pulled from the market.

Iqbal believes the research can determine similar differences at the molecular level, before the bad variants of new molecules cause devastating effects. One key is keeping the nanopores the same size and shape, which the researchers have done. They presented their findings last year at an American Physical Society conference.

The molecular nature of the work is a logical fit for the two UT Arlington chemists. Dr. Timmons has expertise in coating chemicals on the nanopores, and Dr. Dasgupta is a leader in detecting chemicals in trace amounts.

“It’s thrilling that we can have a small, broadly applicable platform that will be usable in a variety of areas,” Dasgupta says.

These areas may extend beyond medical applications. The researchers believe their nanopore technology detection method could be applied to gauge air or water quality. “Again, the earlier we know whether a water or air source is polluted, the better off the people who live there will be,” Iqbal says.

Carolyn Cason, UT Arlington’s interim vice president for research, says such collaborative projects breed innovation.

“They show everyone that we can use resources available to us to solve real-world health problems,” she says. “This research has health-related consequences that can be felt across the industry.”