IBM Drives Nanoscale Cancer Detection With Lab-On-A-Chip Breakthrough

IBM scientists develop new lab-on-a-chip technology that can, for the first time, separate biological particles at the nanoscale

IBM research scientists have developed new lab-on-a-chip technology that they claim can separate biological particles at the nanoscale of 20 nanometres for the first time ever.

The breakthrough in theory could better help physicians detect cancer before symptoms even appear.

The chip can show separation of bioparticles down to 20 nanometres, the scale needed to better access and observe DNA, viruses and exosomes. The separated particles can then be analysed on an individual basis to reveal signs of disease, said IBM.

Prostate cancer

IBM collaborated with a team from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to continue the development of this lab-on-a-chip technology and plans to test it on prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men in the United States.

cancer cell“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 like the flu or Zika,” said Gustavo Stolovitzky, Program Director of Translational Systems Biology and Nanobiotechnology at IBM Research.

“Our lab-on-a-chip device could offer a simple, non-invasive and affordable option to potentially detect and monitor a disease even at its earliest stages, long before physical symptoms manifest. This extra amount of time allows physicians to make more informed decisions and when the prognosis for treatment options is most positive.”

A lab-on-a-chip (LOC) is essentially a single device that can perform a number of lab functions, most commonly used in microfluidics, biochemistry, and in the detection of cancer cells.

IBM said that until now, the smallest bioparticle that could be separated by size with on-chip technologies was about 50 times or larger.

“When we are ahead of the disease we usually can address it well; but if the disease is ahead of us, the journey is usually much more difficult. One of the important developments that we are attempting in this collaboration is to have the basic grounds to identify exosome signatures that can be there very early on before symptoms appear or before a disease becomes worse,” said Dr. Carlos Cordon-Cardo, Professor and Chairman for the Mount Sinai Health System Department of Pathology.

“By bringing together Mount Sinai’s domain expertise in cancer and pathology with IBM’s systems biology experience and its latest nanoscale separation technology, the hope is to look for specific, sensitive biomarkers in exosomes that represent a new frontier to offering clues that might hold the answer to whether a person has cancer or how to treat it.”

The IBM team targeted exosomes with their device as existing technologies face challenges for separating and purifying exosomes in liquid biopsies. Exosomes range in size from 20-140nm and contain information about the health of the originating cell that they are shed from. A 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.

IBM’s results show they could separate and detect particles as small as 20 nm from smaller particles, that exosomes of size 100 nm and larger could be separated from smaller exosomes, and that separation can take place in spite of diffusion, a hallmark of particle dynamics at these small scales. With Mt. Sinai, the team plans to confirm their device is able to pick up exosomes with cancer-specific biomarkers from patient liquid biopsies.

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