One of the biggest problems in fighting breast cancer is the lack of inexpensive, early detection diagnostic tools.
Researchers at the University of Michigan hope to change that by developing a device to test breath for the presence of metabolites associated with breast cancer. The team won a Breast Cancer Research Program Idea award, which funds promising, high-risk, high reward research proposals that could lead to critical advancements in eradicating breast cancer.
"We are very excited about getting this grant without having had too much real exposure to breast cancer research," said Joerg Lahann, assistant professor of chemical engineering and principal investigator. Lahann's team was funded for $446,731 over three years. Lahann also has appointments in biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering, and macromolecular science and engineering. The research is funded by the Department of Defense.
The cornerstone of the device, and what makes it possible, is the switchable surface technology developed in Lahann's lab while a post doctoral student at MIT. Together with professor Robert Langer, they published their findings in the journal Science in 2003. Lahann came to U-M in 2003, and his lab is extending the technology into applications.
The IDEA proposal states that the switchable surfaces have molecularly designed sites that will attract certain metabolites indicative of breast cancer. These sites are actually little nanopockets about 6.4 nm2 in size, that interact with oil and water. The metabolites are also very small and they are attracted to the oil and water pockets.
The switchable surfaces can be engineered to stand up or lie down---imagine blades of tall grass before a strong wind blows them flat. The surfaces switch when electrical charges are applied to make the straight particles bend. When upright, the spaces between the particles are open, and will attract the metabolites.
Theoretically, a woman could breathe into an over-the-counter device and cancer-indicating metabolites would be attracted into the nanopockets, thus causing the pored surface to fill and become dense. Then, an electrical charge would be applied so that the straight particles would bend, thus ejecting the metabolites so that multiple tests could be done in the same device. You can detect the metabolites through a change in conductance or optically
The idea materialized when Lahann's graduate student David Pang found two papers that showed certain molecules, called metabolites that could mark breast cancer, are present in breath and urine.
"We realized that if one could put these molecules in a screening platform, they might develop a non-invasive, quick and inexpensive over-the-counter breast cancer screening test," Lahann said.