Chemists at the University of California–Irvine (UC Irvine) have developed a technology to identify clinically usable markers for prostate cancer in urine.

“Our goal is a device the size of a home-pregnancy test, priced around $10,” explained UC Irvine chemistry professor Reginald Penner in a statement issued by the university. Penner is an author of the Journal of the American Chemical Society study describing the breakthrough (2013;135[20]:7761–7767). “You would buy it at the drugstore or the grocery store and test yourself.”

Using prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA) rather than the usual biomarker for prostate cancer, prostate-specific antigen (PSA), Penner’s team created the screening process with a combination of readily available chemicals and unique electronic sensors.

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As summarized in the UC Irvine statement, salt in urine helps conduct electricity, but also makes it challenging for typical biosensors to differentiate cancer-molecule signals from “noise” around them in the electrodes. In the new sensor, nanoscale protein receptors are double-wrapped around viruses (phages) that live only within bacteria. A high concentration of the viruses is then added to the urine, and the viruses get trapped directly in the electrode. This strategy greatly increases the capture and transmission of cancer molecule signals.

Although human clinical trials are needed, Penner and colleagues hope these can be conducted fairly quickly due to the noninvasive nature of the new testing approach. The investigators noted that the same technology might also be effective for the detection of bladder cancer and multiple myeloma, which also shed identifiable markers in the urine.