Scientists from IBM Research have developed a new lab-on-a-chip technology that can be used to separate biological particles at the nanoscale, thereby allowing physicians to detect diseases such as cancer before their symptoms appear.
The results of the IBM study demonstrate size-based separation of bioparticles down to 20 nanometres (nm) in diameter, a scale that provides access to important particles such as exosomes, DNA and viruses.
Once the bioparticles are separated, physicians can easily study them to find signs of disease even before the patients experience any physical symptoms and when the possibilities from treatment are positive.
In collaboration with a team from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, IBM continues to develop the new lab-on-a-chip technology and intends to test it on prostate cancer, the most common cancer present in men within the US.
Exosomes can be released in easily accessible bodily fluids such as saliva, urine or blood and are considered by scientists as useful biomarkers for the diagnosis and prognosis of malignant tumours.
The IBM scientists intend to use their lab-on-chip technology on exosomes as existing scientific techniques face challenges for separating and purifying exosomes in liquid biopsies.
IBM research translational systems biology and nanobiotechnology programme director Gustavo Stolovitzky said: “The ability to sort and enrich biomarkers at the nanoscale in chip-based technologies opens the door to understanding diseases such as cancer, as well as viruses such as the flu or Zika.
“This extra amount of time could allow physicians to make more informed decisions when the prognosis for treatment options is most positive.”
The size of exosomes range from 20nm to 140nm and provide information about the health of the originating cell they are shed from.
Determination of the size, surface proteins and nucleic acid cargo carried by exosomes can give essential information about the presence and state of developing cancer and other diseases.
The research revealed that exosomes of size 100nm and larger can be separated from smaller exosomes. The separation can take place in spite of diffusion, a hallmark of particle dynamics at these small scales.
According to Mount Sinai, the IBM technology can offer a new method to eavesdrop on the messages carried by exosomes for cell-to-cell communications, which can answer major questions about the biology of diseases, along with carving the way to non-invasive, and eventually affordable, point-of-care diagnostic tools.
By monitoring this intercellular conversation regularly, medical experts can track an individual's state of health or a patient's disease progression.