First use of graphene to detect cancer cells

December 19, 2016 by Bill Burton
Normal and cancerous brain cells interfaced with graphene show different activity levels under Raman imaging. Credit: UIC/Vikas Berry

What can't graphene do? You can scratch "detect cancer" off of that list.

By interfacing onto graphene, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have shown they can differentiate a single hyperactive cancerous cell from a normal cell, pointing the way to developing a simple, noninvasive tool for early cancer diagnosis.

"This graphene system is able to detect the level of activity of an interfaced cell," says Vikas Berry, associate professor and head of chemical engineering at UIC, who led the research along with Ankit Mehta, assistant professor of clinical neurosurgery in the UIC College of Medicine.

"Graphene is the thinnest known material and is very sensitive to whatever happens on its surface," Berry said. The nanomaterial is composed of a single layer of linked in a hexagonal chicken-wire pattern, and all the atoms share a cloud of electrons moving freely about the surface.

"The cell's interface with graphene rearranges the charge distribution in graphene, which modifies the energy of atomic vibration as detected by Raman spectroscopy," Berry said, referring to a powerful workhorse technique that is routinely used to study graphene.

The atomic vibration energy in graphene's crystal lattice differs depending on whether it's in contact with a cancer cell or a normal cell, Berry said, because the cancer cell's hyperactivity leads to a higher negative charge on its surface and the release of more protons.

"The electric field around the cell pushes away electrons in graphene's electron cloud," he said, which changes the vibration energy of the carbon atoms. The change in can be pinpointed by Raman mapping with a resolution of 300 nanometers, he said, allowing characterization of the activity of a single cell.

The study, reported in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, looked at cultured human brain cells, comparing normal astrocytes to their cancerous counterpart, the highly malignant brain tumor glioblastoma multiforme. The technique is now being studied in a mouse model of cancer, with results that are "very promising," Berry said. Experiments with patient biopsies would be further down the road.

"Once a patient has brain tumor surgery, we could use this technique to see if the tumor relapses," Berry said. "For this, we would need a cell sample we could interface with graphene and look to see if cancer cells are still present."

The same technique may also work to differentiate between other types of cells or the activity of cells.

"We may be able to use it with bacteria to quickly see if the strain is Gram-positive or Gram-negative," Berry said. "We may be able to use it to detect sickle cells."

Earlier this year, Berry and other coworkers introduced nanoscale ripples in graphene, causing it to conduct differently in perpendicular directions, useful for electronics. They wrinkled the graphene by draping it over a string of rod-shaped bacteria, then vacuum-shrinking the germs.

"We took the earlier work and sort of flipped it over," Berry said. "Instead of laying graphene on cells, we laid on graphene and studied 's atomic vibrations."

Explore further: Germs add ripples to make 'groovy' graphene

More information: Bijentimala Keisham et al, Cancer Cell Hyperactivity and Membrane Dipolarity Monitoring via Raman Mapping of Interfaced Graphene: Toward Non-Invasive Cancer Diagnostics, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces (2016). DOI: 10.1021/acsami.6b12307

Related Stories

Germs add ripples to make 'groovy' graphene

July 11, 2016

Graphene, a two-dimensional wonder-material composed of a single layer of carbon atoms linked in a hexagonal chicken-wire pattern, has attracted intense interest for its phenomenal ability to conduct electricity. Now University ...

Interactions in designer materials unveiled

November 29, 2016

The fascinating properties of graphene—a single layer of carbon atoms—have been widely celebrated. Not only does graphene exhibit remarkable physics, it also shows great promise for new applications, like flexible display ...

Travelling through the body with graphene

September 28, 2016

For the first time researchers succeeded to place a layer of graphene on top of a stable fatty lipid monolayer. Surrounded by a protective shell of lipids graphene could enter the body and function as a versatile sensor. ...

Recommended for you

A 100-fold leap to GigaDalton DNA nanotech

December 6, 2017

DNA, present in almost every cell, is increasingly being used as a building material to construct tiny, but sophisticated structures such as autonomous 'DNA walkers' that can move along a microparticle surface, fluorescent ...

Go with the flow (or against it)

December 6, 2017

Queen's University researchers are using magnetic fields to influence a specific type of bacteria to swim against strong currents, opening up the potential of using the microscopic organisms for drug delivery in environments ...

0 comments

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.