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Scientists to develop nanochip to detect oral cancer

An international research team is awarded $2 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop a nanochip brush that can detect oral cancer in minutes.

In early 2010, a research project found a simple swipe of a diagnostic biochip to be 93 percent "specific" in detecting which of 52 patients being studied had malignant oral cancer lesions.

Rice Professor John McDevitt holds the LabNow device to read nanobiochips that looks for oral cancer and other diseases. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Now, the international research team announces that it has been awarded $2 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop the test, which involves removing cells with a brush, placing them on a chip, and inserting that chip much like a credit card into an analyzer, with results ready in 8 to 10 minutes.

Such a fast turnaround should result in shorter waiting times, fewer visits, and earlier diagnoses.

Today, diagnosing oral cancer requires removing a small piece of tissue from the mouth, sending it to a pathologist, and waiting at least a week for results. Moreover, these biopsies can be painful.

With this new system, a disposable brush is used to painlessly remove a few cells from the lining of the mouth and the cells are then brushed on the chip. Once inserted into the battery-powered analyzer, the cells pass through mini-fluidic channels and come in contact with biomarkers that react only with specific types of diseased cells. Healthy and diseases cells are then distinguishable based on the way they glow under the LabNow analyzer's two LEDs.

"This technology will make it easier for us to screen suspicious lesions in the mouth and separate non-cancerous lesions from those where there is a risk of cancer and those where cancer has already developed," says Martin Thornhill, professor of oral medicine at the University of Sheffield who leads the research team. "Ultimately, dentists and doctors may be able to use this technology to check suspicious lesions in the mouth and reassure the vast majority of patients that they haven't got cancer without even having to send them to the hospital."

John McDevitt, who developed the novel microchip at Rice University, incorporates the latest techniques in microchip design, nanotechnology, microfluids, image analysis, pattern recognition, and biotechnology to shrink many of the main functions of a state-of-the-art clinical pathology laboratory onto the credit card-size chip.

If the team's current testing proves that the biochip brush is as effective as a biopsy, it could make its way into dentists' offices in a couple years. The technology is also being considered for research projects to diagnose heart attacks, diabetes, and other diseases.