A tiny, vibrating, diving board-like sensor to detect certain types of bacteria and toxins could be used to detect prostate cancer in a more timely, efficient manner at a lower cost.
Drexel University College of Engineering professor Dr. Raj Mutharasan is leading a research team to develop the sensor, which uses lead zirconate titanate for a variety of assays. The PZT sensor can detect DNA taken from smaller numbers of pathogens in a shorter amount of time than current practices allow.
The cantilever sensor technology bounces or vibrates at a higher frequency when the diver leaps off and the mass leaves the board, according to a statement from the university. But the vibration slows when weight is added to it. By measuring the difference between the two frequencies researchers can detect the cells in a short time frame without being in a lab.
With prostate cancer, primary care physicians typically refer patients to a urologist who may do a biopsy that would be sent to a lab. The PZT sensor, dipped in a urine sample, has successfully detected DNA indicators for prostate cancer and that could be done at a lower cost than it currently is, Mutharasan told MedCity News in a phone interview. Also, more men might be more likely to follow through on the referrals if a biopsy were not involved.
In addition to prostate cancer, Mutharasan also sees applications for breast cancer.
The research group has secured a $340,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, according to Mutharasan. The funding will go toward the PZT sensor for detecting DNA, but it will also be used for the sensor’s use in simultaneously detecting and replicating DNA. At the right frequency, the sensor’s vibration can unwind double-stranded DNA, an essential step for DNA replication that can cut a typical detection process from several hours to 60 minutes. The sensor also means this procedure can be done at room temperature.
Mutharasan said it has used the replication application to detect listeria. The sensor reduces the time and conditions of a procedure that would typically take several hours in high temperatures and cuts it to an hour at room temperature.
The technology is three to five years away from being commercially available, according to Philadelphia-based Drexel. Mutharasan likened the technology to detectives using fingerprints to catch a criminal rather than a mugshot — it’s more precise, selective and sensitive. “I believe this to be a strongly enabling technology that could reduce the cost of healthcare,” he said.