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Physicists and oncologists from Spain, France and Switzerland have joined forces in a joint project to develop an innovative platform for early cancer detection. The project —called SPEDOC (Early detection of Circulation Heat Shock Proteins)— is coordinated by professor Romain Quidant from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO), a researcher hired by the Government of Catalonia’s ICREA program.

A joint oncology and nanotechnology project

The SPEDOC project, which started only recently and will have its first prototype in three years, combines the latest breakthroughs in nano-optics, optical manipulation and microfluidics (a technique devoted to developing devices to insert fluids through microscopic channels) with the recent findings on the HSP70 protein. According to these findings, the ability to generate tumors, the potential for metastasis and resistance to chemotherapy are all related to increased concentrations of HSP70 in cancer cells. Additionally, cancer causes an increase of the HSP70 protein in peripheral blood flow, cell membranes and cancer cells.

Portable laboratory

Researchers propose designing a compact device incorporated in a small platform —like a portable laboratory— for use by doctors or technicians not specialized in optical techniques. This minilaboratory could be the future of individualized diagnostics devices.

The basic elements to create this device are knowledge of the HSP70 protein and technological development of optical sensors based on the plasmon effect. This effect is based in some characteristics of the nanoparticles of metals, like gold, that act as highly efficient minute (on a nanometric scale) sources of light and heat.

The portable laboratory will use a number of different sensors based on these plasmons, and will be able to measure both the concentration of the HSP70 protein in the blood and on cell walls. The latter is particularly important, as it could help identify the presence of potential migratory cancer cells, which are very difficult to detect and cause cancer from one area of the body, where it is under control, to jump and metastasize in another, non-controlled, area. Moreover, the system to measure HSP70 protein concentration in cell walls uses the plasmon effect like tweezers to trap the cells and submit them to an optical exam without damaging them.

Researchers believe that these two techniques could make detection of cancer markers two times more sensitive, contributing not only to early detection but also to better follow-up of treatment, as declaring this disease in remission depends on the sensitivity of the techniques used.

Treatment applications will also benefit, both in traditional and more innovative therapies, because the drugs can be administrated in the early stages and at lower doses. These new therapies studied at the ICFO by professor Romain Quidant’s research group are based on recognition molecules inserted in nanoparticles of gold. The nanoparticles are guided by the recognition molecules to the cancerous cells, which are later eliminated using laser technology, again using the plasmon effect of gold nanoparticles.

The project is funded by the European Commission as part of the 7th Framework Program.

162,000 cases of cancer each year in Spain

Cancer continues to be one of the most common diseases in Europe. Although specific incidence rates by age hold more or less steady, the total number of cases is increasing slowly due to the aging population. This trend will continue over the next years, taking into account that by 2015 an additional 22% of the population will be over 65.  Cancer affects one out of every three men and one in four women at some point in their life. According to data from the Spanish Cancer Association, there are 162,000 cases of cancer in Spain each year.


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