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Molecular biosensor diagnoses cancer by spotting high lactate levels

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High levels of the metabolic acid known as lactate can be a sobering clue that cancer is growing inside the body. And now Chilean and U.S. researchers have developed a non-invasive way to diagnose its presence in individual cells: a molecular biosensor.

The Chilean team is pursuing its work from The Centro de Estudios Cientificos, and they're teamed with Wolf Frommer at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Details of their research are published in PLoS ONE.

It's well known that cancer cells produce lactate more rapidly than normal cells, but current detection methods leave much to be desired. The new molecular biosensor model is non-invasive, real-time and at the cellular level--all improvements. The research team claims their advances will help better understand how cancers operate, and even use the approach for drug development work, because the lactate provides a novel target for cancer treatments.

For the research, the team brought into action a bacterial transcription factor to both produce and insert a lactate sensor into normal brain cells, tumor brain cells and human embryonic cells. Through their work they determined that tumor cells generated lactate up to five times faster than their non-tumor counterparts, and they could quantify low levels of lactate at great sensitivity.

The researchers note that their finding builds on Frommer's previous work involving Förster Resonance Energy Transfer, or FRET sensors, to measure sugars in specific cells, using a fluorescent color change.

"Using the same underlying physical principle and inspired by the sugar sensors, we have now invented a new type of sensor based on a transcriptional factor," lead author Alejandro San Martin from the CEC explained in a statement. "A molecule that helps bacteria to adapt to its environment has now been tricked into measuring lactate for us."

- read the release
- here's the journal abstract

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