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Where Nanoscience Meets Cancer Detection: the Onset of Innovation
Where Nanoscience Meets Cancer Detection: the Onset of Innovation

Part 1 in a series on nanoscience and nanotechnology at Portland State. Read Part 2 and Part 3 here.

It was a typical mid-January morning in Portland: cold, dark, rain with no end in sight—perfect Pacific Northwest weather for a conversation to take place. Dr. Raj Solanki, whose research in the Department of Physics had been turning up remarkable results, was meeting with Joe Janda, Director of Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP) to explore ways the tools of intellectual property could help increase the impact of Dr. Solanki’s work on the detection of ovarian cancer. Interested in learning more about this promising, new technology, IIP encouraged Dr. Solanki to provide them with an invention disclosure and the process of devising a project development plan began.

Through the disclosure process, IIP learned that Dr. Solanki and his team had found several single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) aptamers to which they could apply their experience in microelectronics to develop an electronic biochip to detect the presence of a protein, CA-125, that can be elevated in the blood of patients with some types of cancer, and is also a benchmark for monitoring the process of patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Dr. Solanki and his team decided to apply their detection techniques to a disease that is frequently diagnosed in the late stages of progression and is one of the leading causes of cancer death in women: ovarian cancer. As with much of the research in the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology conducted at Portland State University, and the innovations that research produces, Dr. Solanki’s new method for detecting ovarian cancer combines elements of physics and biology to address a critical medical issue.

“We wanted to take advantage of the advances in microelectronics and combine them with what biology has taught us about cancer biomarkers,” Dr. Solanki said.

The new innovation to emerge from Dr. Solanki’s project was the identification of several ssDNA sequences that bind specifically to the cancer antigen CA-125. These ssDNA sequences can also be marked with florescent, enzymatic, or nano-particle labels that can enhance the sensitivity of biosensors that Dr. Solanki has been developing in his lab.

“The goal was to develop an inexpensive diagnostic device for ovarian cancer screening and if we could achieve this goal, major insurance companies would approve screenings for women with a family history of ovarian cancer more frequently, and the tests could be done quickly and provide results immediately. This way we could prevent the disease from claiming lives,” Dr. Solanki said.

But however exciting their current research is, it has the potential to lead to even better methods of detecting ovarian cancer and monitoring the progress of patients undergoing therapy.

“The problem with CA-125 is that it may not provide a signal for early detection,” Dr. Solanki added. There is, however, another biomarker for ovarian cancer detection, HE4.

“We have been working to see if, indeed, HE4 can be used for early ovarian cancer detection. Just being able to detect ovarian cancer is not the point of our work. We want to be able to detect this disease as early as possible.”

Since their initial disclosure, Dr. Solanki and his team, including Research Associate, Dr. Kanwar Vikas Singh, and Ph.D. student, Allison Whited, have been testing their biosensor for detection of HE4, using actual patient samples provided by doctors specializing in ovarian cancer and ovarian cancer treatment at Oregon Health and Science University. Their “blind” tests are providing Solanki, Singh, and Whited with very encouraging results.

“We’re correlating the signals we get from the sensors on the microchip, with conventional clinical techniques, to make a standardized count of the particular biomarkers we’re looking for,” Dr. Singh said.

“That correlation is what makes the biosensors so promising,” Dr. Solanki added. The novel reagents and technique developed by Dr. Solanki and his team for achieving this high specificity led Innovation & Intellectual Property to file a provisional patent application, an important step toward a possible licensing of the technology in the future.

“This early in the life-cycle of an innovation like this,” Joe Janda, Director of Innovation & Intellectual Property said, “it’s important that we wrap appropriate protection around new inventions. It’s just as important that we engage with the project and research team to brainstorm potential ways forward that tie together the research direction, the goals of the team, and a path towards making this attractive to commercial partners down the road.”

While Dr. Solanki is exploring the application of his biosensor technology to the HE4 ovarian cancer biomarker, he is also exploring other applications for the ssDNA sequences he and his team have identified.

“We’ve learned to add chemical tags to these novel reagents that will fluoresce, but we can take this one step further and make a nanoscale spheres to deliver medicine directly to diseased cells. Our aim is to specifically target drug delivery in cancer therapy,” Dr. Solanki said in closing.

IIP is looking forward to hearing from Dr. Solanki as he continues to test and develop his ovarian cancer detecting biosensors.