Editorial Feature

Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer with Carbon Nanotubes

Ovarian cancer is responsible for the lives of more women than any other type of cancer. The lack of a screening method and the fact that many women do not present symptoms of the disease are major reasons contributing to this mortality rate. Now, new research has demonstrated the potential use of nanosensors for sensing cancer-associated proteins in the blood as a method of early detection. The novel technique, which relies on carbon nanotubes, has the potential to enhance the prognosis of ovarian cancer.

Diagnosing Ovarian Cancer with Carbon Nanotubes

Image Credit: mi_viri/Shutterstock.com

Recent years have seen a boom in research into exploring the potential use of nanosensors in the fields of life sciences and clinical medicine. Already, studies have led to novel findings, demonstrating the applications of nanosensors in the early detection and diagnosis of various diseases and drug delivery systems.

Recent research has developed the use of magnetic nanosensors as a diagnostic tool. Another example is the development of acoustic nanodroplets in the targeted diagnosis of pathological myocardium. Studies in this area are vast and growing each year. Currently, it seems like the number of applications of nanosensors in medical diagnostics may be limitless.

Here, we explore new research that demonstrates the potential use of carbon nanotubes in the early detection of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian Cancer is the Leading Cause of Cancer-Related Death in American Women 

Ovarian cancer is only diagnosed after women have noticed symptoms themselves or a doctor has found something suspicious while conducting a pelvic exam. Usually, an ultrasound is the first port of call if there is a suspected issue with the individual’s ovaries. This imaging technique can reveal the presence of cell mass ovarian tumors and confirm the presence of a tumor of a fluid-filled cyst.

CT, MRI, and PET scans are other imaging methods commonly used to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

While these imaging methods are fairly effective at detecting ovarian cancer, the trouble is that most women will not undergo these tests unless they are aware of the symptoms and recognize themselves experiencing them. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer often has no manifestation, and when symptoms do present themselves, it can be because the disease has spread.

There is currently no screening test for ovarian cancer as a method of early detection accessible to women regardless of whether they are at-risk or have symptoms. For these reasons, ovarian cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women in the US. New diagnostic techniques that can detect the disease early will give women the chance to access treatment and enhance clinical outcomes.

Leveraging Carbon Nanotubes to Develop an Early Detection Platform for Ovarian Cancer 

Several types of nanosensors are in development that have the potential to detect this type of cancer. One such technology is being designed similar to an intrauterine device (IUD) that can be implanted into the uterus.

New research led by Sloan Kettering Institute biomedical engineer and Head of the Cancer Nanomedicine Laboratory Daniel Heller is developing a platform that utilizes nanosensors to diagnose ovarian cancer. The team’s nanosensor is designed to detect serum proteins associated with this cancer.

Originating from carbon nanotubes, these nanostructures are rod-like particles of carbon that measure roughly the diameter of human hair in thickness. This nanosize enables the particle to possess the unique properties that its bulk material counterpart lacks. These nanotubes emit infrared light, harmless to the human body and detectable via detectors placed outside.

To enable the carbon nanotubes to detect cancer, the team attached an antibody specific to a biomarker, a protein that appears in the blood, of ovarian cancer, allowing it to recognize and bind to the marker. Once the nanotubes are bound to the protein, the light they give off changes color, which is picked up on by sensors outside the body.

Developing this nanosensor platform will likely be invaluable to establishing a screening technique to identify ovarian cancer in its early stages. Before this can happen, the team will need to test their innovation in human tissue. Currently, they are implanting sensors into uteri that have been surgically removed. If successful, the technology may progress to human trials before it can become widely available.

The Future of Carbon Nanotubes in Medical Diagnostics 

It is hoped that the carbon nanotube technology will eventually be developed into a method of screening for ovarian cancer, with those at a higher-than-average risk likely to derive the most benefit. In addition to improving ovarian cancer diagnostics, the technology has the potential to be developed to detect other cancers or diseases. Theoretically, alternative antibodies could be attached to the carbon nanotubes to detect biomarkers of other conditions. This new research, therefore, may pave the way to a new era of medical diagnostics.

References and Further Reading 

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (2021) To Detect Ovarian Cancer Early, Researchers Look to Nanotechnology. [online] Available at: https://www.mskcc.org/news/detect-ovarian-cancer-early-researchers-look-nanotechnology

Doswald, S., Stark, W. and Beck-Schimmer, B., (2019) Biochemical functionality of magnetic particles as nanosensors: how far away are we to implement them into clinical practice?. Journal of Nanobiotechnology, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12951-019-0506-y

American Cancer Society. (2018) Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer. [Online]. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovarian-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html 

American Cancer Society (2021) Survival Rates for Ovarian Cancer. [Online]. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/ovarian-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-rates.html (

Zhao, X., et al (2018) Cardiomyocyte-targeted and 17β-estradiol-loaded acoustic nanoprobes as a theranostic platform for cardiac hypertrophy. Journal of Nanobiotechnology, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12951-018-0360-3

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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