The future of disease detection may include personal devices the size of cell phones that will be able to diagnose diseases before they develop enough to produce symptoms in seemingly healthy people.
A team of University of Minnesota researchers released a study Wednesday about a magnetic nanotechnology-based diagnostic technique that has the ability to identify biomarkers of diseases in their early stages using blood, saliva or urine samples.
The process uses a magnet to detect and monitor protein levels in the body before diseases emerge, electrical and computer engineering professor and study leader Jian-Ping Wang said.
Some of these proteins are always present at very low concentrations, but they increase when diseases begin to develop, he said.
“Prevention means detecting when protein concentrations are low,” he said.
The researchers are partnering with a medical device company — whose name they aren’t releasing — to produce a handheld, battery-powered tool that will become widely available for use in healthy people to detect diseases before they begin, said Chengguo Xing, associate professor of medicinal chemistry and leader of the study. They hope to develop a commercial device within a year.
The diagnostic technique is a generic, “platform” method of diagnosis in that it can be applied to a variety of chronic and acute diseases, such as different forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even HIV, Xing said.
The device would have dramatically significant implications for cancer in particular, said Balasubramanian Srinivasan, a research assistant and post-doctoral medicinal chemistry student.
The research will initially create the most advancement in the areas of prostate, breast and other forms of cancer by detecting changes in the levels of various biomarkers using bodily fluids, he said.
“Basically, we’re following these markers when you’re normal and healthy,” Srinivasan said.
The current, most widely used method of disease detection is called the ELISA test, but it’s very expensive, results take a long time to process and it requires professional staff to monitor it.
The new method would be cheap, portable and easy to operate, Xing said.
“As I always mentioned, we need to make a device that my grandma can use at home,” he said. “If we can’t achieve that level, it won’t be feasible for usage.”
Anyone, even a student, would be able to take a sample of their blood, saliva or other fluid, put it in the device and push a button. The machine would collect that data and instantly display the information, which could be transferred to the individual’s physician over the Internet.
In the future, a database will be created that will process the information and predict disease outcomes, Xing said.
Much of today’s medicine is reactive, meaning doctors realize the patient has a disease and then they treat it. This approach, however, will shift the focus of medicine onto prevention, thereby alleviating health care costs associated with diseases that have progressed into later stages, Xing said.
Many diseases don’t surface in the form of symptoms until about 20 years after they begin to form, Xing said.
“If we can diagnose them in their 10th year, they would basically have no symptoms,” he said. “Those diseases are much easier to be managed and more effective and potentially, basically you don’t need to take medications, just change your lifestyle.”
Prevention methods are being developed that would slow or halt the disease from progressing further once a person is found to have the biomarkers in development, Xing said, such as chemical agents in vegetables.