Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst claim to have developed a 'chemical nose' - and this one can sniff out cancer.
The revolutionary tool contains an array of nanoparticles and polymers that differentiate not only between healthy and cancerous cells but also between metastatic and non-metastatic cancer cells.
Currently, detecting cancer via cell surface biomarkers has taken what's known as the "lock and key" approach.
However, this method includes foreknowledge of the biomarker.
"Our new method uses an array of sensors to recognize not only known cancer types, but it signals that abnormal cells are present," said chemist Vincent Rotello, who conducted the research with cancer specialist Joseph Jerry.
"That is, the chemical nose can simply tell us something isn't right, like a 'check engine light,' though it may never have encountered that type before," he added.
Further, the chemical nose can be designed to alert doctors of the most invasive cancer types, those for which early treatment is crucial.
The study conducted using four human cancer cell lines (cervical, liver, testis and breast), as well as in three metastatic breast cell lines, and in normal cells showed that the new detection technique correctly indicated not only the presence of cancer cells in a sample but also identified primary cancer vs. metastatic disease.
Rotello's research team, with colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designed the new detection system by combining three gold nanoparticles that have special affinity for the surface of chemically abnormal cells, plus a polymer known as PPE, or para-phenyleneethynylene.
As the 'check engine light,' PPE fluoresces or glows when displaced from the nanoparticle surface.
The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online.