A vibrating disc no bigger than a speck of dust
could help to diagnose and monitor common types of
cancer and provide specialists with information about
the most appropriate therapy.
The European Commission has this month awarded 12 million Euros to an international
consortium led by Newcastle University, England, to develop the biosensor technology
towards clinical trials stage.
The research team aims to produce a hand-held device which would enable samples
of blood, smear or biopsy to be tested quickly and accurately, for signs of cancer
of the breast, cervix, colon or rectum.
The device would identify 'cancer specific markers' - proteins or other molecules
produced by cancer cells - which vary according to the type of cancer and are
distinct from proteins produced by healthy cells.
The researchers have manufactured discs less than one-tenth of a millimetre in
diameter and coated them with special patterns of DNA or proteins which cause
the cancer-specific markers to bind to the surface.
The discs are created in a silicon wafer and made to vibrate electronically in
two modes. When a cancer-specific marker binds to the surface of a disc, in the
pattern of the coating, the uneven weight causes one of the modes of vibration
to change in frequency.
The difference between the frequencies of the two modes of vibration is measured,
enabling the detection of tiny amounts of cancer specific marker. In theory,
even the weight of a single molecule binding to the surface of a disc could be
Professor Calum McNeil, of the School of Clinical and Laboratory Sciences at
Newcastle University, who is leading the project, said: 'We are confident that
this new technology has the potential to improve the prospects of successful
treatment for these cancers'.
'Early diagnosis and effective monitoring of cancers are known to be key factors
influencing outcome. In addition, the technology could provide specialists with
advice about the most appropriate therapy for a particular patient, since the
devices could easily be connected to sources of information such as a hospital
computer network, the internet or a mobile phone.'
Initial research was funded by the LINK Analytical Biotechnology Initiative,
sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
and the Department of Trade and Industry.
The technology could eventually be developed for other types of cancer and a
range of other diseases, including those caused by bacteria. This opens up the
possibility of hospitals being able to screen new patients and visitors for MRSA,
tuberculosis and other diseases to prevent the infections being carried into
Potential uses do not stop at medicine. In theory, the technology could be used
to detect particles from biological or chemical weapons, providing an early warning
system against terrorist attacks.
Professor McNeil collaborated closely with colleagues in engineering and life
sciences at Newcastle University*. In fact, the idea of vibrating discs was inspired
by earlier work at the University involving the manufacture of micro-gyroscopes,
which are now standard equipment in many devices that detect movement, from navigation
equipment to car air-bags.
At the heart of a micro-gyroscope is a vibrating disc that must be almost perfectly
formed to operate correctly. Professor McNeil realised that a near-perfect disc
could be turned into an extremely sensitive weighing machine because the addition
of a tiny weight would make it vibrate unevenly.
European Commission funding for the project, known as Smart Integrated Biodiagnostic
Systems for Healthcare, or SmartHEALTH for short, officially begins in December
2005, via the European Commission's Framework 6 programme.
The research consortium comprises four universities, seven research institutes,
11 SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises), three large companies and four clinical
centres in the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland,
Italy, Norway, Sweden and Australia.
Professor McNeil collaborated
closely with Newcastle
University colleagues including Professor Jim Burdess
and Dr John Hedley in the School of Mechanical & Systems
Engineering; Dr Alun Harris of the School of Electrical,
Electronic & Computer Engineering and Dr Simon
Woods of the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research
* For further information please contact Mick Warwicker or Claire Jordan at the
University Press Office on 0191 222 7850, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org