A smart sensor chip, able to pick up on subtle differences in glycoprotein molecules, can improve the accuracy and efficiency of prostate cancer diagnosis. These findings were published in Chemical Science (2015; doi:10.1039/C5SC02031J).

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom believe that the novel technology will help improve the process of early stage diagnosis.

Glycoprotein molecules, which are proteins that have one or more carbohydrate chains covalently bound to them, perform a wide range of functions in cell surfaces, structural tissues, and blood. Because of their essential role in our immune response, they are useful clinical biomarkers for detecting prostate cancer and other diseases.

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The team of chemical engineers and chemists created a sensor chip with synthetic receptors along a two-dimensional surface to identify specific, targeted glycoprotein molecules that are differentiated by their modified carbohydrate chains.

In doing so, they developed a more accurate and efficient way of diagnosing prostate cancer than the current tests which rely heavily on antibodies.

The antibodies used in current tests are expensive to produce, subject to degeneration when exposed to environmental changes (such as high temperatures or UV light), and more importantly, have a high rate of false–positive readings.

“There are two key benefits here. Crucially for the patient, it gives a much more accurate reading and reduces the number of false–positive results. Furthermore, our 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,” said Paula Mendes, PhD, of the University of Birmingham.

Most previous research on detecting glycoproteins centered on the protein of the molecule. Problematically for diagnosis, the protein part of glycoproteins does not always change if the body is diseased.

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The findings show that the rate of false readings that come with antibody based diagnosis can be reduced by the smart technology that focuses on the carbohydrate part of the molecule.

The complex sugar structure in glycoprotein can be subtly different between healthy and diseased patients. In order to achieve more accurate readings, the team wanted to identify the presence of disease by detecting a particular glycoprotein which has specific sugars in a specific location in the molecule.

Mendes added, “Biomarkers such as glycoproteins are essential in diagnostics as they do not rely on symptoms perceived by the patient, which can be ambiguous or may not appear immediately. However, the changes in the biomarkers can be incredibly small and specific and so we need technology that can discriminate between these subtle differences, where antibodies are not able to.”