CGD members at IGB and the Holonyak Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory (HMNTL) focus on identifying reliable biomarkers of disease, as well as developing technologies to detect those biomarkers and thus diagnose and monitor disease more rapidly, cheaply and effectively. Working with clinicians at the Mayo Clinic as well as other regional institutions, the center seeks to help clinicians select the treatment that is most likely to work for a specific patient.
Thanks to advances in biotech instrumentation and techniques over the last decade, many new molecular targets for treatment of diseases, including many cancers, have been identified. Nonetheless, selecting optimal therapeutic regimens remains challenging. Often, there are many therapies that may slow disease progression, but they work only for some patients. An additional complicating factor in cancer treatment is the evolution of cancer cell populations over time, allowing tumors to evade the treatment. There are no reliable predictive factors, and performing a biopsy on a tumor is invasive and expensive.
CGD researchers work on non-invasive genomic “liquid biopsies” and blood-based diagnostics to define disease outcomes and identify the appropriate treatment. These tests look at molecules known as micro-RNAs (miRNAs) that are present in the bloodstream of patients. The goal is to develop at-home sample collection assays that can be used to define an individual’s condition and to track treatment progress.
Center members on the bioinformatics side mine genetic information and genomic sequencing studies to identify mutations and disease processes and then identify the miRNAs that can be unique identifiers for a specific condition. Individual molecules are tagged with a semiconductor quantum dot or some other type of metallic nanoparticle, and specially engineered nucleic acid probes are used that can selectively bind with the target molecule.
Patients could use a finger stick to collect a drop of blood that would be put into a cartridge and mailed to a health clinic or local diagnostics lab, eliminating the need for a personal visit. The detection approaches under development could allow inexpensive testing done with low-cost equipment, rather than a genome sequencing approach requiring a million dollar instrument.