'Protein-friendly' chip offers rapid disease testing

By Lisa Hitchen A device capable of spotting diseases in the tiniest drop of blood or urine has been developed by UK scientists. It is 10 times smaller than existing sensors and can detect a range of protein molecules associated with different diseases. Christoph Wälti and Giles Davies and colleagues at the University of Leeds used electrodes instead of conventional glass slides to make their device. The electrodes are only about 10 micrometers apart and could ultimately be made even smaller, they say. Existing sensors use antibodies that bind to target proteins. But antibodies are unstable and become poorer at identifying disease proteins when attached to components within a sensor. At present, scientists must also label proteins with fluorescent tags and then use optical techniques to detect them – a process that looks at just one protein at a time and is both complex and imprecise. “We wanted to short-circuit that,” says Paul Ko Ferrigno. “So in real time a clinician might be able to take a sample, mush it up and put it over an electrode array and say immediately that a cancer is present and what the origin of that cancer might be.” The team created peptide aptamers – artificial antibodies that are very stable and bind easily to a specific proteins – and attached them to their microscopic electrodes. When a target protein binds to an aptamer, the electrodes generate an electronic signal, immediately indicating the presence of the protein. To test the effectiveness of the device, the team exposed an array of electrodes – each with one of two different peptide aptamers attached – to a mixture made from broken down, or “lysate”, yeast cells, which has similar complexity to blood or urine. One set of electrodes carried aptamers with an affinity for a particular protein found in the mixture. When dipped into the mixture, these electrodes lit up to signal the presence of the proteins. The device can be manufactured using technology already commonplace in the microchip industry, so the team says it should be simple to increase the number of sensors involved and to scale the device down further. “Using semiconductor technology provides huge advantages,” says Davies. This offers the possibility of a device capable of identifying multiple proteins simultaneously, and even analysing multiple protein interactions at the level of a single cell, the authors claim. Journal reference: Journal of Biology (DOI:
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