Illinois Cancer Center develops technology identifying early-stage liver cancer


Sydney Laput

The Illinois Cancer Center, located in the Beckman Institute for Advance Science and Technology, has been the groundwork for many scientific discoveries. Brian Cunningham, professor in Engineering and Bin Zhao overlooked a study that found technology that detects early-stage liver cancer.

By JP Legarte, Investigative News and Longform Editor

In the Cancer Center at the University, Brian Cunningham, professor in Engineering and Bin Zhao, a prior postdoctoral fellow at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, oversaw a study that lead to the discovery of technology that detects early-stage liver cancer.

Rohit Bhargava, director of the Cancer Center at the University, spoke about the ways the center is a foundation for studies like the one Cunningham and Zhao conducted.

“The Cancer Center is a forum for the entire University to build this bridge and take the basic science and engineering on our campus and bring it (to make) impact … in benefiting patients and benefiting society,” Bhargava said.

When discussing the reasons behind the pursuit of their study, Cunningham cited an early childhood experience that still influences his research efforts today.

“When I was a younger person in my 30s, both my parents developed cancer at kind of an early age and passed away from that,” Cunningham said. “That’s what led me to try to dedicate my efforts as an engineer to developing better diagnostic approaches for cancer.”

The detection instrument Cunningham and Zhao developed is known as a photonic resonator absorption microscopy or PRAM. To summarize, the first step of the detection process involves inserting a probe molecule — a molecule that assists in studying the properties of other molecules — into a group of small particles known as gold nanoparticles.

“We put a specially designed probe molecule on the gold nanoparticles that allows it to capture the molecule we want to detect out of the test sample,” Cunningham said. “We mix the gold nanoparticles with the molecule on it with the sample and then the gold nanoparticles basically gather up all the target molecules we want to detect.”

Then, through a chemical reaction, these particles are attached to the surface of a photonic crystal, a device composed of big pieces of glass that affect the flow of light. Cunningham and Zhao designed their specific photonic crystal to reflect only the color red.

Any normal parts of the particle grouping would reflect a normal red color, but any parts that may contain other materials of interest would show up as a dark spot.

“The way we detect is that each place where there is a gold nanoparticle, it absorbs the red light,” Cunningham said. “When we shine red light at the photonic crystal, ordinarily it would be a bright red reflector, but every place there’s a nanoparticle, there’s a little dark spot.”

The specific image of this grouping is then reflected into a webcam that reveals the dark spots as black sprinkles against a white background, which is observed using an image analysis approach.

The discovery of this method of detecting early-stage liver cancer improves upon currently existing methods that are slower and pricier.

Cunningham said PRAM is cheaper and quicker in its detection process compared to the PCR test, the main method of detecting viruses and cancer molecules. In fact, while PCR tests can take days and cost around $150 or $200, testing with PRAM only takes a minute and costs about a dollar.

When considering the applications of the study and the likelihood of future studies, Cunningham said PRAM’s detection methods may apply to other types of cancer.

“We have a project now in collaboration with Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City to develop a test for prostate cancer,” Cunningham said. “We have another new project with Carle Hospital to use the same approach for detecting biomarkers for breast cancer.”

The technology has not been used to diagnose patients yet as researchers have to gather more data, conduct more studies, apply for patents and make the technology more robust.

However, Cunningham mentioned there is a consideration for licensing the technology to a company that could bring the technology into commercial service in the future.

Commenting on Cunningham’s overall role within the Cancer Center at Illinois, Bhargava discussed how Cunningham’s impact and contributions extend even beyond the study involving PRAM and the detection of early-stage liver cancer, emphasizing his reputation and passion for his work over the years.

“Professor Cunningham is one of the most respected, productive scientists on our campus … as a program leader, what Dr. Cunningham has done is used his experience and used his ability to translate work right from fundamental advances all the way to clinical impact … to help our cancer center enable others to do that.”


[email protected]