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The next great detective story: using nanosensors for early cancer detection

The hardest part about detecting cancer is that the disease emerges from our own tissues. The detectives in the clinic, the doctors, have a difficult time distinguishing between good and bad cells due to their similarities. It is as if the culprits of the crime have disguised themselves to look like innocent bystanders.

Indications that a patient might have cancer are already apparent once the mutated cells start appearing in the body, but clinical detection of the disease still relies on decades-old imaging techniques that have low sensitivity and poor ability to differentiate between benign and malignant tissue. Early diagnosis of cancer can significantly improve survival rates by allowing treatments before the disease becomes symptomatic, so there is great need to address the limitations of currently available methods for cancer diagnosis.

Cancer cells are known to have abnormal acidic pH values, which can act as a starting point. My research looks at using nano-sized particles that can sense the pH of their surrounding environment. They fluoresce at different intensities based on the acidity or basicity of the solution they are in. If these nanoparticles are placed inside cells, their fluorescence can help indicate which cells are more acidic, and thus more prone to malignant behavior.

With this technology, clinicians will be better equipped to sleuth for cancer cells in the body, leading to earlier diagnosis and improved patient prognosis.

Evaline Tsai

Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

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