Sweet solutions for detecting disease

June 19, 2013, CORDIS
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: Long distance calls by sugar molecules

Related Stories

Long distance calls by sugar molecules

June 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 how cells sense each ...

Giving research a boost with cheaper biochips

March 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 make it possible ...

Proteins in gel

June 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 be produced industrially.

Early indicators of lung cancer probed in new study

June 4, 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 research efforts ...

Recommended for you

Floodplain forests under threat

March 19, 2019

A team from the Institute of Forest Sciences at the University of Freiburg shows that the extraction of ground water for industry and households is increasingly damaging floodplain forests in Europe given the increasing intensity ...

Scientists discover common blueprint for protein antibiotics

March 19, 2019

A discovery by researchers at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute (LA BioMed) has uncovered a common blueprint for proteins that have antimicrobial properties. This finding opens the door to design and development ...

Nanoscale Lamb wave-driven motors in nonliquid environments

March 19, 2019

Light driven movement is challenging in nonliquid environments as micro-sized objects can experience strong dry adhesion to contact surfaces and resist movement. In a recent study, Jinsheng Lu and co-workers at the College ...


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.