IBM is collaborating with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to develop lab-on-a-chip technology that could help physicians detect diseases such as prostate cancer before symptoms appear.

The researchers will test the device’s ability to detect exosomes with prostate cancer-specific biomarkers from liquid biopsies. Exosomes are released in accessible bodily fluids such as blood, saliva or urine.

According to IBM, exosomes are increasingly being viewed as useful biomarkers for the diagnosis and prognosis of malignant tumours and are becoming a critical tool to reveal the origin and nature of a cancer.

“The ability to sort and enrich biomarkers at the nanoscale in chip-based technologies opens the door to understanding diseases such as cancer as well as viruses like the flu or Zika,” said Programme Director of Translational Systems Biology and Nano biotechnology at IBM Research, Gustavo Stolovitzky.

“This extra amount of time could allow physicians to make more informed decisions and when the prognosis for treatment options is most positive,” continued Stolovitzky.

Separating bioparticles down to 20 nanometres in diameter gives access to important particles such as DNA, viruses and exosomes. Once separated, physicians can analyse the particles to look for signs of disease even before patients experience any physical symptoms and treat the patient earlier, when doing so would likely be more effective.

Until now the smallest bioparticles that could be separated by size with on-chip technologies was about 50 times the size or larger. The lab-on-a-chip technology separates biological particles on a much smaller scale than previously possible.

“When we are ahead of the disease we usually can address it well; but if the disease is ahead of us, the journey is usually much more difficult,” said Chair of the Department of Pathology at the Mount Sinai Health System, Prof Carlos Cordon-Cardo.

“By bringing together Mount Sinai’s domain expertise in cancer and pathology with IBM’s systems biology experience and its latest nanoscale separation technology, the hope is to look for specific, sensitive biomarkers in exosomes that represent a new frontier to offering clues that might hold the answer to whether a person has cancer or how to treat it,” concluded Prof Cardo.

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