The findings, currently online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involve introducing molecularly engineered strands of DNA into cell cultures and observing whether they unleash a fluorescent burst after they adhere to cancer proteins.
The technique could enable doctors to search within extremely complex fluid or tissue samples to pinpoint biomarkers - proteins that signal that something is amiss.
"Even when the cancer biomarkers are in extremely low concentration we have been able to detect them," said Weihong Tan, Ph.D., a UF Research Foundation professor of chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a member of the UF Genetics Institute, the UF Shands Cancer Center and the McKnight Brain Institute. "This approach could help for early diagnosis of cancer, as well as for detecting residual cancer in patients after treatment."
It works by capitalizing on fluorescent molecules engineered into tiny strands of DNA or RNA. Known as aptamers, the strands act as molecular beacons, corresponding and readily binding to a sought-after substance such as cancer protein.
In this case, the target was platelet derived growth factor, or PDGF, a protein that regulates cell growth and division. Elevated PDGF levels have been linked to different forms of cancer, and have been found in patients with malignancies of the ovaries, kidneys, lung, pancreas and brain.
After the probe physically conforms to the PDGF, the molecule can be snapped on like a light switch to flash a fluorescent signal.
Tan, the associate director of UF's Center for Research at the Bio/Nano Interface, is seeking to patent the technology in conjunction with UF. He has been issued four U.S. patents for his work in the past two years.