Cancer is a complex disease and major public health worldwide including Australia. Cancer occurs only if the cells grow abnormally beyond their usual boundaries that can then invade adjoining parts of the body, multiply out of control, and spread to other organs, which then can lead to serious health complications and eventually death.Cancer can emerge from almost any type of body cells and has various anatomic and molecular subtypes that each requires specific treatment management strategies (Cancer Council Australia, 2016; World Health Organisation, 2018). These include breast cancer, prostate cancer, blood cancer or leukemia and lung cancer.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is the second leading cause of death globally and accounted for 8.8 million deaths in 2015. In 2018, Cancer Australia estimated that 138,321 new cancer cases will be diagnosed in Australia. Of this number, 54% (74,644) will affect male populations and 46% (63,676) female populations. 35% (48,586) of the total new cancer cases in Australia could be fatal (20% (27,552) males and 15% (21,034) females). The economic impact of cancer is significant and increasing. In 2010, the estimated global annual economic cost of cancer was US$ 1.16 trillion (WHO, 2018 and Cancer Australia, 2018).
While research has come a long way in detecting various forms of cancer, there are still many not detected until it is too late. The burden of cancer can be reduced through early detection. Many cancers have a high chance of survival if diagnosed early and treated adequately (WHO, 2018). The hopeful news is that there are new technologies emerging such as nanotechnology as well as other novel approaches that could expand early detection efforts.
A cell is the basic and smallest unit of all living organisms. There are trillions of cells that make up the human body, forming the tissues and make up the organs such as liver, heart, lung and kidney. All cells have three things in common regardless of their types. These include cell membrane, which provides a stable internal cell structure and transport across the cell; cytoplasm, which contains organelles for the cell to reproduce, energy production and removal of waste; and nucleus, which contains DNA that is the cell’s genetic material necessary for reproduction. DNA dictates the characteristic and function of the cell that is essential for normal body functions.
Through numerous years of research, scientists are now able to differentiate the characteristic of normal and cancer cells. For instance, normal cells have uniform shapes and sizes. They grow, duplicate their DNA and divide (mitosis) in a controlled manner and follow a predictable life cycle. They recognise chemical signals and stop dividing when too much of new cells are present. Normal cells undergo a process of apoptosis, which is self-destruction if they sense abnormalities and damage in their organelles. They have the capacity to bond with other cells via their external membranes. They also communicate with other cells for proper functioning.
Cancer cells, on the other hand, have a large variety of sizes and shapes. They grow in an unregulated and uncontrolled manner. Their DNAs are damaged due to several factors such as hereditary, environments exposure and chemical substances such as tobacco, radiation and UV light from the sun. They divide at a very fast rate and over a short period, they formed a cluster of mutant cells known as a tumour. Cancer cells do not undergo apoptosis and do not communicate with each other for proper functioning. They do not recognise chemical signals when to stop dividing, resulting in more mutate cells being produced. These mutated cells can spread erratically, invading other parts of body tissues. One of the adverse effects from this is that the mutated cells can disrupt the normal functions of the tissues or organs, which then could lead to organ failure.
Cancer cells must be controlled from the body, the earliest the better so that treatment can be managed more effectively, hence, increase the chance for survival. An IBM Nanobiotechnology research team responded exactly to this challenge by developing a state of the art early-warning system known as a lab-on-a-chip/nano-DLD technology for the diagnosis and prognosis of cancers. The system applies a non-invasive procedure and it is designed to detect important biomarkers known as exosomes related to cancer cells at an early stage. Exosomes are tiny vesicles that are shed off by the cells and they exist in bodily fluid such as blood, urine and saliva. The IBM nanobiotechnology research team also collaborates with other fields in semiconductor and advance experiment biology to develop the efficient method for the bio-particles’ separation to make way for the diagnosis of cancer at a very early stage.
All cells including cancer cells regularly excrete nanoscopic particles known as exosome. Exosomes are small vesicles of 30—120 nanometers in diameter. They are present in all eukaryotic fluids such as blood and other bodily fluids. They are about 100 times smaller than a red blood cell. They contain sophisticated RNA and protein cargos from their cells of origins. Exosomes move to all body parts, transferring genetic materials between the cells. They play important roles in intercellular communications as well as a transmission medium for diseases such as cancer. Today, exosomes are viewed as especially secreted vesicles and scientists are showing great interest to study the functions of the exosome in great depth to understand ways to use them in the development of minimally invasive diagnostics for cancer.
A project under IBM Nanobiotechnology has developed a lab-on-a-chip/nano-DLD technology, which has the ability to automate the isolation and purification of tiny exosomes from blood samples. Exosomes that enter the nano-DLD pillar are split into separate stream according to size. The pillar geometry split the exosomes carrying fluid into streams. Smaller particles stay within a single fluid stream, zigzagging around the pillar, while larger particles that cannot fit within a single stream are deflected, separating them from the smaller particles. Separated exosomes are collected and analysed for biomarkers of diseases such as cancer. The nano-DLD technology not only non-invasive, it also capable to monitor early stage diseases like cancer and much more cost effective (Joshua Smith, 2016).
Scientists at IBM continue to work to develop new technology that can accommodate larger sample volumes and allow the size limit of particle separation to access the sub-10nm particle regime. They also working on developing different surface chemistries targeted toward other bio-particles like viruses.
Another development by IBM scientists is Watson. Watson is supercomputer that helps specialist spot skin lesion changes for skin cancer. The IBM research’s goal was to get to a level of accuracy of 80%. So far, the results from research show a level of accuracy of closer to 95%. This can impact the society by being able to detect cancer early and reducing the chance of death.
Collaboration is at the heart of IBM research program. One of their collaborative efforts is with scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to develop a lab-on-a-chip technology and testing method for prostate cancer. This new technology will allow them to follow exosomes’ cell-to-cell communication, enabling them to learn more about disease pathology and progression. Both IBM and Mount Sinai teams will seek to determine whether the device can register exosomes with cancer-specific biomarkers from liquid biopsies (Kelsey Kaustinen, 2016).
There is a very clear evidence through the IBM research program that many communication and collaboration have led to the promising development, including the development of ‘Nano-DLD’. Therefore, the dream to cut down the cost for people around the world would still be a chance. There are still hope to lower the mortality rates from cancer. Without continuing to communicate and collaborate between researcher, scientists and organisations, the development of new technology and methods may not exist and be the solution to stop the mortality rates from cancer. Scientist are able to develop technologies and methods, which may be cost, emotionally and physically effective and efficient.