Super-sensitive tests could detect diseases earlier

Scientists have developed an ultra-sensitive test that should enable them to detect signs of a disease in its earliest stages, in research published today in the journal Nature Materials.

The scientists, from Imperial College London and the University of Vigo, have created a test to detect particular molecules that indicate the presence of disease, even when these are in very low concentrations. There are already tests available for some diseases that look for such biomarkers using biological sensors or 'biosensors'.

However, existing biosensors become less sensitive and predictable at detecting biomarkers when they are in very low concentrations, as occurs when a disease is in its early stages.

In today's study, the researchers demonstrated that the new biosensor test can find a biomarker associated with prostate cancer, called Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA).  However, the team say that the biosensor can be easily reconfigured to test for other diseases or viruses where the related biomarker is known.

Professor Molly Stevens, senior author of the study from the Departments of Materials and Bioengineering at Imperial College London, said:

"It is vital to detect diseases at an early stage if we want people to have the best possible outcomes - diseases are usually easier to treat at this stage, and early diagnosis can give us the chance to halt a disease before symptoms worsen.  However, for many diseases, using current technology to look for early signs of disease can be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.  Our new test can actually find that needle. We only looked at the biomarker for one disease in this study, but we're confident that the test can be adapted to identify many other diseases at an early stage."