A photo of a man sitting in front of a computer monitor. A man standing to the right of him is looking at a machine.
VCU physics doctoral candidates Mohammed Almahyawi and Thomas W. Rockett demonstrate the setup of their nanopore research that could one day help diagnose ovarian cancer. (Photo by Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU-led research shows effectiveness of new technique to detect ovarian cancer marker peptides

The nanopore-sensing technology could lead to earlier and more accurate diagnoses.

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A new study led by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University found that a novel technique is effective at detecting specific biomarkers that are present in the urine of ovarian cancer patients. The research could one day play a role in helping doctors more accurately diagnose ovarian cancer.

The study’s lead author, Joseph Reiner, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose. Mass spectrometry has previously identified thousands of peptides that are present in the urine of ovarian cancer patients.  These peptides could serve as biomarkers for ovarian cancer, but mass spectrometry is not readily available for clinical applications and alternative techniques are needed to detect these peptides.

In their paper, “Cluster-Enhanced Nanopore Sensing of Ovarian Cancer Marker Peptides in Urine,” the researchers describe using gold nanoparticles in conjunction with nanopore sensing to detect and characterize 13 of the previously identified peptides. They include peptides from LRG-1, an increasingly sought-after protein biomarker that is commonly present in the urine of ovarian cancer patients.

“Beating cancer relies on early and accurate diagnosis. In fact, clinical data shows a 50-75% improvement in five-year survival when cancers are detected at their earliest stage,” Reiner said. “This is true across numerous cancer types. We are interested in ovarian cancer because it is particularly difficult to detect and requires the development of new sensors that could be made widely available for clinical applications.”

The paper describes a technique that could be applied toward detection of numerous peptides simultaneously. The hope is that this “broad spectrum” approach, in conjunction with other relevant information (such as CA-125 blood test, transvaginal ultrasound and family history), could someday provide a more accurate picture of whether or not ovarian cancer is present at an early stage. 

“We envision that our approach could expand beyond ovarian cancer to other types of cancer,” Reiner added.

The study will be published in ACS Sensors, a journal of the American Chemical Society. The research is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (CBET – 2011173).

In addition to Reiner, the research team included VCU physics doctoral candidates Thomas W. Rockett and Mohammed Almahyawi; former VCU physics doctoral student Madhav L. Ghimire, Ph.D.; Aashna Jonnalagadda, Victoria Tagliaferro and Gregory A. Caputo, Ph.D., of Rowan University in New Jersey; Sarah J. Seashols-Williams, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science at VCU; and Massimo F. Bertino, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Physics at VCU.

Additionally, the research was supported by contributions from Indranil Sahoo, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research at VCU, and Jennifer Mailloux, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington.