A "simple blood test" could help improve survival rates from prostate cancer which claims over 10,000 lives in the UK every year. Developed by a research team at the University of Birmingham, the new technology will hopefully allow doctors to detect the disease earlier and more effectively.
Paula Mendes, a professor of advanced materials and nano-technology at the university, told the IB Times UK that her team had demonstrated that they could distinguish the particular kinds of PSA protein that were linked to prostate cancer from those that were not.
By precisely distinguishing between the different types of sugar wrapped up in the strings of protein that break off from the prostate and make their way into the bloodstream "it will allow for a much more accurate and earlier diagnosis of prostate cancer through a simple blood test," she said.
"When the disease occurs we see a change in these sugars but that used to be very difficult to detect," she added. "What we are able to do now is detect what type of sugars we have and how they are organised."
To do this the team of chemical engineers and scientists developed a 1cm by 1cm, "highly selective", gold-plated sensor chip. Its synthetic receptors can identify the glycoprotein molecules linked to prostate cancer allowing for a much earlier diagnosis of prostate cancer.
"It is essentially a lock, and the only key that will fit is the specific prostate cancer sugar or glycoprotein that we're looking for," she said. "Other glycoproteins might be the right size, but they won't be able to bind to the very specific arrangement of boron groups."
"There are two key benefits," professor Mendes said. "Crucially for the patient, it gives a much more accurate reading than currently available tests."
The blood test currently available to GP's known as PSA testing is "far from perfect," according Matthew Hobbs, deputy director of research at the Prostate Cancer UK charity.
He told The Times that it gave false positive results that "send men for biopsies they may not need, and false negative results mean that some cancers are missed."
The second benefit was that the new technology "is simple to produce and store, so could feasibly be kept on the shelf of a doctors' surgery anywhere in the world. It can also be recycled for multiple uses without losing accuracy," professor Mendes said.
This would give doctors a much clearer picture of whether a tumour had formed and how advanced it was, she said, adding that it had the potential to check for other cancers and other diseases including Alzheimer's.
While the technology is still in the development phase, professor Mendes said they are going to start rigorous testing in a clinical lab in the next 18 months and if all goes well they hope it will become a fixture in GP surgeries a few years after that.