Nano Sensors Group | Illinois

Nano Sensors Group in the News


  • October 5, 2009 - University of Illinois and Pacific Northwest Laboratory Win NIH Economic Recovery Funding to Develop High Sensitivity Cancer Diagnostic Tests

    The National Institutes of Health awarded a grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to fund the development of diagnostic tests on bodily fluids to detect the presence of proteins that indicate the presence of cancer.  The project is a collaboration between the research groups of Prof. Brian T. Cunningham at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and Dr. Richard Zangar at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA. 

    Cancerous cells within the body produce a specific set of proteins that enter the bloodstream, but those proteins are diluted to very low concentrations as they are distributed throughout the body.  Such proteins are known as “biomarkers” because their presence “marks” the presence of a developing tumor somewhere inside the body.  A single biomarker may not conclusively indicate a cancer diagnosis, but simultaneous identification of multiple biomarkers greatly increases the accuracy of a test.  Dr. Zangar leads a group of molecular biologists and surface chemists in the development of small chips that contain arrays of dozens of antibodies that specifically bind with protein biomarkers.  Such chips, called “protein microarrays” have demonstrated sensitivities down to 10-13 M (low pg/ml range) for detection of protein markers associated with breast cancer .  Separately, the Cunningham Group in the Bioengineering Department and Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Illinois has developed special optical surfaces called “photonic crystals” that are capable of amplifying the output of fluorescent assays by over two orders of magnitude.  The photonic crystal surfaces are fabricated from plastic materials over large surface areas, and can be embedded into the surface of standard microscope slides.

    “The goal of the project is to combine Pacific Northwest Laboratory’s expertise in protein microarrays with our expertise with photonic crystal fluorescence enhancement,” says Prof. Cunningham.  “Using the photonic crystal, our goal is to push the detection sensitivity for protein biomarkers substantially below 1 picograms per milliliter, where a picogram is only one millionth of one millionth of a gram of protein.  By detecting biomarkers at lower concentrations, the presence of hidden tumors can be detected at an early stage, while the cancer is still treatable.  A rapid and inexpensive test could be performed periodically to screen for a wide array of biomarkers, and positive tests can be followed with imaging scans to locate the tumor.  My group has been following the outstanding results of the Zangar group for many years, and we are excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with them.”

    ” The lower the concentration of a cancer marker in blood, the more likely it is that the levels of that marker will be significantly increased by a small tumor, ”  Says Dr. Zangar.  “Therefore, the central goal of Cunningham’s laboratory, to improve assay sensitivity, is of great importance since success will mean an improved ability to detect cancer in its earliest stages, when the disease is more readily cured and treatment is generally less harsh and costly.”  The project will start in October, 2009 and continue for two years.