Imperial College London

Electrical Engineers advancing cancer diagnostics


Cancer cells with microchip illustration

A multidisciplinary project aims to develop a microchip-based 'liquid-biopsy' test for detection and monitoring of breast cancer recurrence.

The CRUK Multidisciplinary Award scheme supports collaborations between cancer researchers and scientists from engineering and physical sciences.

Co-funded by Cancer Research UK and EPSRC, a grant has been awarded to a team led by Dr Melpomeni Kalofonou and Professor Chris Toumazou of the Centre for Bio-Inspired Technology, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, in collaboration with cancer specialists Professor Charles Coombes and Professor Simak Ali, Faculty of Medicine, and Professor Jacqui Shaw of the University of Leicester.

Breast cancer detection

In the UK, the majority of patients with breast cancer have no evidence of secondary tumours at the time of diagnosis. Although the primary cancer can be removed with surgery, in many patients, cancer cells can seed in the body's circulation forming micrometastases, which can grow and spread if left unchecked, making early detection vitally important.

Current detection approaches require an invasive tissue biopsy, rely on access to highly specialised equipment, are very expensive for routine use, and cannot distinguish between active, progressive and minimal residual disease.

Research by Professors Coombes and Shaw, has shown that tumour-specific mutations in circulating-free DNA found in blood plasma can be used as biomarkers for detection and monitoring of micrometastasic breast cancer.

A blood based test or ‘liquid biopsy’ has the potential to detect these genetic markers in a minimally invasive way, but their detection also currently requires highly specialised lab-based equipment, which is the main reason that ‘liquid biopsy’ patient stratification tests are not yet integrated into breast cancer clinical use.

Microchip technology

On the basis of the clinical research, the team aims to develop an easy to use, cost-effective microchip-based system consisting of arrays of ISFET sensors, which combined with microelectronics and information processing will provide a fast and low-cost blood test at the point of need.

This sample-to-result 'Lab-on-Chip' system may help to predict the risk of breast cancer relapse and, repeated over the course of treatment, monitor disease progression and drug response, allowing treatment to be tailored to the patient. 

Future outcomes

Dr KalofonouDr Kalofonou describes the project as an essential stage in a long-term vision to create a cheaper, lab-free, portable sample-to-result system, and also for the personalisation of cancer therapy: "We are honoured to have received the CRUK Multidisciplinary Award. This will significantly advance breast cancer monitoring to prolong overall survival and improve patient outcome through guided treatment, and the collaboration will establish and empower a great synergy between the disciplines of Electrical Engineering and Medicine."

Professor ToumazouProfessor Chris Toumazou says: “We would like to thank CRUK and their foresight in funding this first grant to the centre and in particular recognising the importance of this crucial interface between engineering, microchip technology and medicine. It is at this interface where the exciting innovation takes place leading to the much warranted translation of cancer research into the field of diagnostics, preventive and early detection technology."

Head of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Professor Eric Yeatman, congratulated the team on their award: "It's especially great news to be able to celebrate the start of 2018's Year of Engineering with the announcement of a medical research grant led by electrical and electronic engineers. This project is an excellent example of how engineering can be a hugely exciting and rewarding career, with the potential to make a positive impact on people's lives on a global scale."



Jane Horrell

Jane Horrell
Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering

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