Bioscience

Tool developed at UA may spot cancer faster

December 18, 2007

By Flinn Foundation

[Source: Alan Fischer, Tucson Citizen] – Cancer and other illnesses could be detected – and treated – years sooner, thanks to a tool developed by a Tucson company spun off from University of Arizona research. “This technology can save lives,” said Mary J. Wirth. “You want to detect it before it has metastasized.”

BioVidria Inc., spun off from Wirth’s work at UA, will offer tools to detect tiny cancers and other diseases that current diagnostic methods miss and do the job more quickly, said Wirth, the company’s president and a UA professor of chemistry. Early detection of cancer using bioVidria’s products – even long before symptoms appear – will allow doctors to offer more effective treatments. “We want to make it so you go from rarely curable to always curable,” Wirth said.

The company in early January will begin prototype manufacturing of BrightSlides, testing slides that are 80 times more sensitive in detecting cancer and other diseases than the slides now used with DNA in labs around the world, Wirth said. BrightSlides is a new development in the $1 billion-per-year DNA microarray market, said Wirth, a member of UA’s BIO5 Institute. Microarray is a technology that studies genes to understand how they work and what role they play in the development of cancer and other diseases. “We already have companies asking us for prototypes,” Wirth said.

Cancer screening starts by printing a glass slide with single strands of DNA or proteins, using a device like a tiny automated quill pen. Each 1-by-3-inch microarray slide can contain more than 20,000 human genes. BioVidria’s secret is glazing a 10-micron-thick layer of silica colloidal crystals onto a conventional lab slide. The coating is one-fifth the thickness of a human hair. “Silica colloidal crystals are the same as opals,” she said. “We’re making artificial opals and depositing them on the slide.”

That allows researchers to see potential problems with 80 times greater brightness, or sensitivity, she said. “We could use smaller sample amounts. With this we can find the needle in the haystack,” said George S. Watts, co-director of UA’s Genomics Shared Service and a researcher at the Arizona Cancer Center who works with microarrays. “This could offer more reliable results,” Watts said. “Thousands of labs around the world would benefit around it, and thousands of research projects ranging from improving the quality of rice crops to better cancer diagnosis would benefit.”

The clear coating, which is like adding numerous layers of pool balls to a flat surface, gives the slide more contact area with the specimen being tested, said John L. Lemon, a UA chemistry doctoral candidate and intern with bioVidria. BioVidria has other technologies that will aid cancer researchers and doctors. The company’s coated slides will make the process of discovering the protein biomarkers linked with cancer faster. Researchers today use a tile-size polyacrylamide gel material when separating out proteins to determine difference between healthy and cancerous cells, Wirth said.
By using smaller, stamp-sized coated glass slides, the time needed for the separation process can be cut from two days to minutes, she said. Eventually, bioVidria’s products could be used to develop a simple blood test to screen for cancers and to develop better therapeutics to treat the disease, she said.

Wirth was inspired to launch her research after seeing a paper in an optics journal on how silica colloidal crystals were used successfully in photonics. Photonics is the study and technology of using light for transmitting information. “I looked at the materials being used and realized they could be used for microarrays,” she said.

Patents have been applied for on bioVidria’s technology, which is owned by the Arizona Board of Regents. The state will receive financial benefits when the products go commercial, Wirth said. The company was incorporated in July. Tomika R.C. Velarde, who received her graduate degree in chemistry from UA while working in Wirth’s lab, will begin manufacturing and testing BrightSlides in early January. “I’m excited to be applying research done for my master’s to real-life science,” Velarde said. “This will allow people to do experiments they would not have been able to do with what’s available now.”

The company is self-funded for now, but that is expected to change with growth. A presentation Dec. 5 at an event showcasing the UA Professional Science Master’s Program in Applied Science and Business, a program in which Lemon is a participant, resulted in contact with potential financial backers. The program offers scientists guidance in areas such as developing funding pitches and writing business plans for commercializing their lab work, Lemon said. Wirth and Watts have applied for a Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund large-scale testing of BrightSlides on UA’s highest output microarray printer, which deposits thousands of tiny spots of DNA and proteins on the slides.

How it works

  • Microarray is a technology that studies genes to understand how they work and what role they play in the development of cancer and other diseases.
  • Proteomics analyzes proteins and signaling processes initiated by our genes.
  • Cancer screening starts by printing a glass slide with single strands of DNA or proteins, using a device like a tiny automated quill pen.
  • Each 1-by-3-inch microarray slide can contain more than 20,000 human genes.
  • Components of human cells extracted from a biopsy sample being tested are added to the slides and are attracted to a spot on the slide that reveals their identity or gene expression.
  • Researchers examining the results can find genetic materials that are not present in a healthy sample and that can be a marker for the presence of cancer or other diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and infectious diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), influenza, pneumonia, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and valley fever.