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IBM's 'lab-on-a-chip' technology to help disease detection

03 August 2016

IBM has developed 'lab-on-a-chip' technology which works by separating biological particles at the nano-scale to allow physicians to detect diseases such as cancer before symptoms appeared.

The chip can separate bioparticles down to 20 nanometres (nm) in diameter, which allows access to important particles such as DNA, viruses and exosomes (small fluid-filled sacs containing material originating from cells).

On separation, the particles can be analysed by physicians to reveal signs of disease even before physical symptoms were experienced, to provide the best possible outcome.

IBM had worked with a team from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, to develop the chip and had plans to test it on prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men in the US.

With the precision medicine of today, exosomes are being increasingly viewed as useful bio-markers for the diagnosis and prognosis of malignant tumours.

Exosomes, which are released in easily accessible bodily fluids such as blood, saliva or urine have emerged as a very useful biomedical tool for medical professionals and can be used in the context of less invasive liquid biopsies to understand the origin and nature of a cancer.

Twenty nanometers is not the limit of IBM's sorting tech, says Gustavo Stolovitzky, who heads the Nanobiotechnology group at IBM Research, Fast Company reported.

Exosomes had been used earlier in cancer detection. In May 2015, for instance, researchers from the University of Texas published an article in Nature about a test for pancreatic cancer that spots chemicals found on the exosomes from cancerous cells.

"The big difference may be that using [IBM's] technology, you may be able to do a more pure isolation," says Gabriel Otte, CEO and cofounder of Freenome, a liquid biopsy company, the report said.

"I would argue that if you have a purer sample it opens up other interesting biological applications."

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