Latest news from Loughborough University

15 Apr 2015

Loughborough University study harnesses the power of smartphone technology in the fight against cancer

A Loughborough University academic has developed what is believed to be the first in a new generation of rapid detection tests for prostate cancer – with the help of smartphone technology. 

In a study led by Dr Nuno Reis, Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, the University research team successfully conducted a test for prostate cancer – the second most common cause of cancer in the male population worldwide – using a small sample of blood, a new affordable microfluidic test strip, and a smartphone camera. The full study has been published in the Biosensors and Bioelectronics journal

The portable device uses simple image analysis to monitor the levels of PSA (prostate specific antigen) – the most widely used prostate cancer biomarker – in a whole blood sample. It is a point-of-care and over-the-counter test that Dr Reis says has the potential to “revolutionise the healthcare system”, by making reliable lab and consumer test results accessible to everyone, even in remote areas of developing countries where laboratories are limited. 

A magnifying lens is attached to the smartphone camera in order to capture an image of a signal generated from the blood to determine the level of PSA in the sample. This is shown as a number, which the GP, for example, can then use to indicate to the patient whether he is at ‘high risk’ or ‘low risk’ of developing prostate cancer. The whole process takes 15 to 20 minutes to complete. 

Dr Reis said: “The global smartphone market is growing at an extraordinary rate, and the technology it offers has the potential to transform people’s lives, which is why our test could revolutionise the healthcare system, providing an affordable, user-friendly and low cost device for maximum results. 

“PSA is the most well established cancer biomarker which rapidly identifies men who are at higher risk of prostate cancer. It has helped to save millions of lives since it was implemented in clinical diagnostics. While current lateral flow tests (similar to pregnancy tests) are designed to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, our approach will provide the clinician with a number which will support clinical decisions for the effective screening of men at high risk of developing prostate cancer. 

“PSA is a protein produced exclusively by the cells of the prostate gland. The PSA level in the blood stream is often elevated in men with prostate cancer, but PSA levels can also increase with age and other benign conditions, such as prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) and benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlargement of the prostate). A yes/no result designed to a given universal cut-off value is not suitable for point-of-care prostate cancer screening or detection. This is why our smartphone approach measures patients’ actual PSA level which is paramount in order to make conscious decisions about further testing or treatment. 

“Another unique aspect to our test is that it can combine several other biomarkers which will help increase specificity and early detection of prostate cancer. It can also be used to not only monitor men who have already been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but to check if the cancer has recurred. The accuracy of this test is within 10 to 15 per cent, which is the same as gold standard tests in clinical labs.” 

Ana Barbosa, a PhD student who worked with Dr Reis on the study, added: “With prostate cancer being the second most common cause of death by cancer in the UK, the mobile test we have devised could help to save lives by boosting levels of early detection, potentially becoming as simple to use as a pregnancy test with the help of popular smartphone technology.” 

The study was co-funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Capillary Film Technology Ltd – a UK SME developing low-cost microfluidic fluoropolymer film for life sciences and clinical diagnostics.

Notes for editors

Article reference number: PR 15/52

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, putting it among the best universities in the world, and was named Sports University of the Year 2013-14 by The Times and Sunday Times. Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and has been voted England's Best Student Experience for six years running in the Times Higher Education league. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

In 2015 the University will open an additional academic campus in London’s new innovation quarter. Loughborough University in London, based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, will offer postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities.

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