British scientists have designed a prototype of a highly sensitive scanner that can detect diseases such as prostate cancer and HIV in very early stages. They consider their discovery extremely useful in countries where high-tech detection equipment is scarce.
The researchers, from Imperial College London, reported that their new visual sensor technology is 10 times more sensitive than traditional disease detectors that measure biomarkers in the body, according to Medical News Today.
The team tested the sensor's accuracy in looking for a biomarker known as p24 that's associated with HIV in human blood samples. They tested other samples for the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) marker, one indicator of prostate cancer.
The National Cancer Institute predicts that more than 240,000 men in the United States will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012 and that more than 28,000 of them will die. A male newborn has a one in six chance of developing this disease.
The two standard ways of detecting this cancer are a digital rectal exam and a PSA test. In early stages, many cases have no symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, use of the PSA test is debatable because studies have never proven that the blood test saves lives. It can yield suspicious results even when the patient merely has an infection.
The new sensor detects prostate cancer by looking for PSA in a blood sample. With a positive result, irregular clumps of nanoparticles form and emit a specific blue shade inside the disposable container. For a negative test, the nanoparticles separate and form shapes that resemble a ball. The process creates a red hue. Both colors are visible to the naked eye.
The ultra-sensitive sensor could detect certain diseases at much earlier stages than current technology can find. It found miniscule levels of p24 in samples from patients with low HIV viral loads, a result impossible with standard tests like the Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA).
The next step toward implementation is finding a sponsor among not-for-profit global health organizations to oversee the strategy for development, funding, and distribution of the technology.
While use of the sensor in the United States might be years away, the device is of special interest to my family. After years of lower-than-average PSA results, the numbers for my husband, who has a family history of prostate cancer, shot up last year. A test six months later showed even higher numbers.
The urologist performed prostate biopsies that caused bleeding and discomfort for weeks. The results showed no sign of malignancy, calling into question the validity of the two tests. A year later, the numbers mysteriously returned to the low end of the normal range. It would be reassuring to have access to this sensitive new sensor, knowing that it has the capacity to detect prostate cancer in very early stages.
Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.