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UC Irvine chemistry professors develop method for early cancer detection

Gregory Weiss, pictured here, and Reginald Penner, professors of chemistry at UC Irvine, developed a non-invasive means to detect early cancer flags in urine.
Gregory Weiss, pictured, and Reginald Penner, professors of chemistry at UC Irvine, developed a non-invasive way to detect early cancer flags in urine.
(Daniel Xu / UCI Beall Applied Innovation)

Cancer was the second-leading cause of death in the United States in 2017, following only heart disease.

The National Cancer Institute estimated that 1,735,350 new cases of cancer would be diagnosed in the United States in 2018 and 609,640 people would die from it.

More than 599,000 people died from cancer in 2017, according to a June 2019 report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gregory Weiss describes cancer as molecules run amok.

"[Molecules are] hijacking cells and going nuts and forcing cancer cells to produce lots and lots of copies of themselves,” said Weiss, a professor of chemistry at UC Irvine. “These molecules can appear in urine, in blood — if we can detect those, we have a way of diagnosing cancer.”

The Irvine start-up PhageTech Inc. — founded in 2014 by Weiss and Reginald Penner, also a professor of chemistry at UCI — applies bacteriophage engineered to recognize cancer-associated proteins.

"[Bacteriophage] are viruses totally harmless to humans but infect bacteria. Because they infect bacteria, you can program them to do tricks,” Weiss said. “They can grab onto cancer-associated proteins [called] biomarkers. Those are those molecules that go crazy, hijack the cancer cell and turn it into a tumor production factory.”

“Samples from patients are really complicated. There’s tons of different molecules. So the viruses give us an edge to grab onto the ones we’re interested in — the ones associated with cancer — and ignore all the irrelevant ones,” he added.

“Can we diagnose cancer earlier? Detect recurrent disease in patients that have already been treated for cancer? Those are the big issues that [PhageTech] focuses on.”

Weiss said his lab previously was studying bacteriophage when Penner discovered a way to turn the findings into an electrical signal that could be read in less than a minute. Weiss compared the reading to that of a home pregnancy test, in which results typically come in one or two minutes.

“My dream is that I’d like people to be tested for cancer-associated molecules often and inexpensively and routinely and under non-invasive conditions,” Weiss said. “My dream would be to just test urine, because everyone is going to excrete urine. No one cares about it. It doesn’t hurt when you get tested for it.”

The way the biotechnology being developed and refined at PhageTech works is that the viruses are interwoven into a special plastic material — poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene), or PEDOT — that can conduct electricity. As the viruses grab onto the proteins, laboratory technicians can use the impedance — the measure of resistance that a circuit presents to a current when voltage is applied — to read how much biomarker exists.

“It’d be really cool if you could get that checked exactly when you’re in your physician’s office and they’re like ‘Hey, we’re all clear’ or ‘I don’t know. We should follow up on this,’” Weiss said. “This isn’t a massive imaging thing. If it’s inexpensive, we’re more likely to catch it early.”

Weiss said his collaboration with Penner dates back at least a decade. The two were initially studying sensors when Penner’s mother and Weiss’ father were diagnosed with and eventually died because of cancer.

“We have to do this. We really have to look at cancer,” Weiss said. “It really hit home for us. We realized we had to laser-focus on cancer and cancer diagnostics.”

Weiss said early designs and papers were not very robust, but designs in recent years came with more significant statistical data that he said they could show investors and, hopefully, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to commercialize the biotechnology in the next couple of years.

“This is a really important step toward fast, inexpensive, frequent testing, which I hope will turn the tide against cancer by diagnosing it earlier,” Weiss said.

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