Chemistry and Biochemistry

Chem Professor Develops Early Cancer Detector

Posted: Feb 08, 2010

When the threat is cancer, the current three-day waiting period for test results can be a tense, long stretch of time.

But if Adam Woolley, a BYU professor specializing in analytical chemistry, has his way, those at risk for cancer will soon receive their test results in only thirty minutes. That means quick, convenient and reliable cancer detection while you wait. Woolley’s new early cancer detection technology is a big deal at a small scale.

Driven by his interest in miniaturization, Woolley has created a device to sift the complex components of blood and quickly isolate target proteins that may indicate cancer. A series of micro channels, similar to computer circuits, are created by bonding two embossed plastic slides. The blood sample is then shuttled through the channels and, as voltage is applied, the target proteins are driven past a detector. Once the proteins are isolated and quantified, doctors can determine the patient’s risk level and then advise appropriate follow-up.

Woolley’s method is not only quick, but it is also innovative because it will allow patients to receive test results at the doctor’s office, rather than depending on busy clinical labs. This disposable device is a great leap forward in both sophistication and ease – requiring only a finger stick, instead of a full blood sample.

Woolley is confident about the application of this technology and he is preparing to test it on a protein marker associated with liver cancer. As more proteins are identified as indicators of disease, the technique may find wider application, even possibly helping doctors to recognize heart disease early on.

“It’s essentially universal,” Woolley remarked. “As long as we have the right antibody, we can pull out the protein.”

BYU Ph.D. candidate Weichun Yang is already pursuing additional applications, working with Woolley to analyze a panel of four cancer-related proteins.

The biggest challenge standing in the researchers’ way? “Dust,” says Woolley. “The channels are about equal to the size of a particle of dust, so they can get clogged.”

While certainly not without their own unique obstacles, it seems Woolley’s mini protein sorters are bound to bring about big improvements in the process of early cancer detection.

By Katie Pitts