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Duke-designed nanoprobes may detect early disease markers

By Sam Harris
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Before we experience symptoms of infections or disease, our bodies are hard at work, fighting viruses, bacteria or other illnesses. This lag time, between when our immune systems recognize sickness and when we actually begin to feel sick, represents an early window for detecting disease – and researchers are looking into it.

Scientists from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, in collaboration with medical researchers at the Duke Institute of Genome Science & Policy, are developing new diagnostic tests that may help detect patients’ illnesses early on.

In a paper published in June in the journal Analytica Chemica Acta, the Duke team reported designing nanoprobes – microdevices using X-rays to “see” – that seek out early biological markers of disease in blood samples.

The diagnostic method involves placing a patient’s blood sample on a small chip, which contains the special nanoprobes. The nanoprobes then attach to any disease markers in the blood sample, such as a cancer cell. When a laser is shined on the chip, the attached probes emit light, which is detected by an optical sensor.

“In general, our nanoprobes can be designed to attach to various disease targets,” said Tuan Vo-Dinh, a professor of biomedical engineering at Pratt. He is also a professor of chemistry and director of Duke’s Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics.

The technology could have wide-ranging applications and help clinicians diagnose a variety of diseases at an early stage, including heart disease, traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s. Vo-Dinh is also working closely with clinical investigators at Duke Medical School to develop rapid cancer diagnostics for breast, brain, gastrointestinal and other cancers.

“The chip is simple, low-cost and highly reproducible,” Vo-Dinh said. “Blood samples can be placed on the chips, where the nanoprobes will bind the disease markers in a single biochemical reaction. This yields quick diagnostic results and requires few laboratory reagents.”

He added that the technology could be used to simultaneously detect multiple diseases from one sample, allowing doctors to run “panel” tests to determine whether patients are affected by a variety of diseases.

“This multiplex capability is important for genomic medicine and personalized medicine. The detection is simple and cost-effective.”

Vo-Dinh said he thinks the technology could be developed for other applications, including homeland defense and environmental monitoring.

Vo-Dinh’s group is teaming with collaborators at the Duke Global Health Institute to apply the technology for detecting infectious diseases in developing countries.

The team’s research will focus on improvements to the technology, including figuring out how to monitor patients for disease markers in real time, as opposed to testing blood samples after they are taken from the patients.

“We also want to develop detection devices that will be cost-effective, portable and rugged for future point-of-care and field applications, and further expand collaborations with clinicians at Duke and other institutions.”

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