UC Researcher Says Her Device Can Detect Cancer In Minutes

Feb 9, 2021

Most tests for cancer are invasive, involving biopsies and nerve-wracking waits. A University of Cincinnati assistant professor is behind a new device that can detect cancer quickly using blood or saliva.

Leyla Esfandiari Ph.D., is an assistant professor in UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science. She has a patent pending on a small chip device allowing doctors to get results in less than 30 minutes.

"It's going to be faster, cheaper and more reliable," Esfandiari says of her lab-on-a-chip. "The most important thing from the patient's point of view is that it's going to be minimally invasive. They are not going to take a tissue biopsy. They are going to get some blood or saliva."

The device uses biomarkers called exosomes, or cell-secreted nanoscale extracellular vesicles. Typical tests also use exosomes, but they are difficult to extract from fluids, which is how researchers identify markers that indicate cancer (and other diseases), and require bulky machines and lots of fluids. It can also take up to two days to get the biomarkers, says Esfandiari.

Esfandiari and her team have created a process that is smaller, faster, cheaper and uses less biofluid. Her device uses an electric field and special pipettes to separate the exosomes from the biofluids.

The next step is finding a way to analyze the exosomes on the chip as well. Eventually, the little lab-on-a-chip could provide the same test results that currently require hours or days of analysis and equipment in a big lab.

Esfandiari and her team created this "lab-on-a-chip" as an early test for cancer.
Credit Corrie Mayer/CEAS Marketing

She's received funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, among various grants. While she and her team are working on expanding the chip's capabilities, they're also working on a parallel path, she says, to create a business startup. That way, once the device is completed and approved by the FDA, it can quickly be brought to market, she says.

Once approved, Esfandiari anticipates the device will be helpful in early cancer detection since people will be able to easily go to their doctor or a hospital and get quickly tested.

It could also help with personalized medicine by extracting and using exosomes to deliver medicines back to the body.

"The whole idea is that you extract the exosomes from an individual's blood ... and then you add a specific drug or microRNA or a different type of reagent into them, and you put it back into the blood to circulate into your system and deliver the drug into the right location," says Esfandiari.

Why is that better than current drug delivery methods?

"When you extract these from your own body, the immune response is going to be so much less. You're not going to get rejection from them."