New Technique Detects Disease Biomarkers in Nucleic Acid Form Using Nanotechnology

A new technology has been developed by a team of researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center , which can detect disease biomarkers in nucleic acid form. Nucleic acids are basic units of all living beings.

Image Credit - Inozemtsev Konstantin/

The proof-of-concept study is available online in the Nano Letters journal.

We envision this as a potential first-line, noninvasive diagnostic to detect anything from cancer to the Ebola virus. Although we are certainly at the early stages of the technology, eventually we could perform the test using a few drops of blood from a simple finger prick.

Adam R. Hall, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study

Nucleic acids comprise of base chains or sequences, which can stretch from a few, to as much as millions of elements long. The precise order of these bases, even for small distances, is related to their functions and thus, can be utilized as clear indicators of activities inside cells and tissue. For example, microRNAs, a group of nucleic acids, are around 20 bases long, but can provide indications to several diseases, including cancer.

Scientists have studied microRNA biomarkers for years, but one problem has been accurate detection because they are so short, many technologies have real difficulty identifying them.

Adam R. Hall, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study

In the new procedure, nanotechnology is used to determine if a specific target nucleic acid sequence is present in a mixture, and quantifying it if it does by a plain electronic signature.

If the sequence you are looking for is there, it forms a double helix with a probe we provide and you see a clear signal. If the sequence isn’t there, then there isn’t any signal. By simply counting the number of signals, you can determine how much of the target is around.

Adam R. Hall, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study

The research group first demonstrated that the technology can recognize a particular sequence amongst competing nucleic acids, and then demonstrated the technique to a particular microRNA (mi-R155) that signals lung cancer in humans. The group demonstrated that the approach can resolve even tiny amounts of microRNAs that can exist in patients. Subsequent work involves expansion of the technology to investigate blood samples, urine or tissue.

Hall has a provisional patent on this Innovative technique.

The study was funded by NIH grant 1R21CA193067; The Dr. Arthur and Bonnie Ennis Foundation; and the 3M Non-tenured Faculty Award program.

Co-authors include Osama K. Zahid, B.S., and Fanny Wang, B.S., of Wake Forest Baptist; Jan A. Ruzicka, Ph.D., and Ethan W. Taylor, Ph.D. of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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