Sweet solutions for detecting disease

Jun 19, 2013
Changes in the composition of a glycan attached to the protein backbone (in white-grey) detected by three different lectins (glycan recognising proteins shown in colour. Credit: J Tkáč

Based at the Institute of Chemistry in the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Ján Tkáč's research combines glycomics – the study of sugars in organisms – with biochip sensors based on nanoparticles and nanotubes. The complexity of sugar molecules, he says, has so far held back the development of glycomics, but today it is one of the fastest developing scientific fields.

"This is vital research as there is growing evidence of the importance of glycans in many aspects of cell physiology and pathology," explains Dr Tkáč. "Here at the Institute we were very pleased with the ERC award because, after welcome EU investment for infrastructure, this five-year grant for ground-breaking research gives us the long-term stability we need to develop our team of young researchers and achieve real excellence in glycomics". Dr Tkáč currently employs four PhD students and one post-doc in his research team with the support of his ERC grant.

Biochips for early warning

In the ELENA project, Ján Tkáč's team is developing innovative biochips that can detect changes in 'glycosylation', of glycans attached to a protein or other , and which can indicate diseases such as cancer. A typical ELENA biochip starts with a gold-plated . are then deposited on to the , followed by a layer of lectin (a glycan recognising protein). Finally, a layer of is deposited over the lectin after with a sample. Interactions between the lectin and glycoprotein layers can then be detected by changes in the of the biochip assembly. "The importance of the nanoparticles is their size," explains Dr Tkáč, "they are small enough for us to study interactions at the cellular and molecular level and offer greatly improved detection limits."

"Indeed, ELENA's first nano-biochips are proving more sensitive by factors ranging from 1 million to a billion compared to state-of-the-art fluorescent biochips. We can catch diseases earlier on, with the possibility of treating them more effectively in the future," he says. "And high sensitivity means the biochips can be small, which opens possibilities for in vivo measurements – with the prospect of putting the biochip into the patient. This technology offers much in the fight against diseases that disguise themselves well, such as various forms of cancers – making it difficult for our body's cells to detect and combat it."

As well as faster, more sensitive detection, ELENA also aims for nano-biochips that are more accurate. Current laboratory methods use 'labels' to help detect interactions – such as fluorescent dyes. But such 'labels' can influence the local environment and the properties of protein and glycan molecules – leading to false results in some cases. "By tracking interactions by measuring changes in electrical resistivity, our technology is 'label free'. So we can preserve a much more natural way of interaction, closer to that in the organism, which will make our measurements and diagnoses not only faster and more sensitive but more accurate," explains Dr Tkáč.

As regards the research environment in Slovakia, it is getting better due to presence of world class infrastructure, he says, and he believes that this, in combination with ERC grants, can reduce the brain-drain and attract highly-qualified people to do science in Slovakia.

Explore further: Experts cautious over Google nanoparticle project

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Long distance calls by sugar molecules

Jun 18, 2013

All our cells wear a coat of sugar molecules, so-called glycans. ETH Zurich and Empa researchers have now discovered that glycans rearrange water molecules over long distances. This may have an effect on ...

Giving research a boost with cheaper biochips

Mar 14, 2012

An EPFL invention has drastically reduced the cost of producing biochips, which are used to measure glucose and drug levels in the blood and to detect biomolecules and cellular signals. This development could ...

Proteins in gel

Jun 24, 2009

Biochips carrying thousands of DNA fragments are widely used for examining genetic material. Experts would also like to have biochips on which proteins are anchored. This requires a gel layer which can now ...

Early indicators of lung cancer probed in new study

Jun 04, 2013

(Phys.org) —Many of the critical processes underlying cancer formation and eventual metastasis to other organs remain mysterious. In the quest for earlier diagnoses and more effective treatment, intensive ...

Recommended for you

Nanosafety research: The quest for the gold standard

Oct 29, 2014

Empa toxicologist Harald Krug has lambasted his colleagues in the journal Angewandte Chemie. He evaluated several thousand studies on the risks associated with nanoparticles and discovered no end of shortc ...

New nanodevice to improve cancer treatment monitoring

Oct 27, 2014

In less than a minute, a miniature device developed at the University of Montreal can measure a patient's blood for methotrexate, a commonly used but potentially toxic cancer drug. Just as accurate and ten ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.