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Detecting Cancer by Its Frequency

This novel metamaterial absorber could theoretically detect a range of cancer types

2 min read
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This article is part of our exclusive IEEE Journal Watch series in partnership with IEEE Xplore.

There are many different ways to detect cancer—by biopsy, imaging, and even blood tests, depending on the type of cancer. But some researchers are exploring a novel way of detecting cancer that’s based on the unique electromagnetic radiation frequency of cancer cells, which differs from that of healthy cells.

The challenge is creating devices that can measure the radiation frequency with high accuracy. One possible solution is the use of metamaterials, which are a combination of materials engineered to have unique properties, such as negative refractive index, anomalous reflection, and optical magnetism. Or, in the case of cancer detection, these materials have the ability to absorb electromagnetic radiation at very specific frequencies.

One research group has already developed a metamaterial capable of detecting colon cancer. More recently, another group of researchers in the United States has proposed a metamaterial that could theoretically detect a much broader range of cancers. The researchers describe their metamaterial in a study published 30 May in IEEE Sensors Letters.

“Terahertz is a non-ionizing radiation and is becoming increasingly popular for biomedical applications, as it does not pose a threat [to living cells],” explains Mohammad Khan, assistant professor and director of the Network Science and Analysis Lab at East Tennessee State University, who was involved in the study. “It is gaining the attention of researchers for its ability to detect cancer, since cancerous and healthy cells refract different signals when subjected to terahertz radiation.”

Generally, cancer detection with this method would involve directing terahertz radiation at a sample of suspected cancer either inside the body or in a petri dish. A device that can detect the frequency of the returning signal is also needed to determine whether or not the sample is likely to be cancerous. For the concept to work, though, researchers need accurate devices for measuring the returning terahertz radiation signals.

In their study, Khan and his colleagues proposed a novel design that consists of several merged circular ring resonators over a gallium arsenide substrate. Through simulations and calculations, they predict the design could absorb 99 percent of radiation at 3.71 terahertz, a frequency that many cancer cells refract.

“We were surprised by the sensitivity offered by the design—the amount of spectral shift achieved when the [sample is cancerous or not]. This large shift can help in the convenient and accurate detection of cancer,” says Khan.

He acknowledges, however, that more experiments are needed before this technique can be used in the clinic. If the results translate into the real world, he says, the design could be useful for detecting cancers such as basal cell, cervical, and breast cancer.

Khan says his team plans to apply for funding to study their new resonators through experiments in the lab. “Additionally, we are incorporating machine learning into spectrometric analysis. While the theoretical accuracy of our approach is good, machine learning is needed to increase the predictability and adaptability to more practical scenarios,” he says.

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Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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