Femtomedicine — the new frontier of biomedical sciences

15 February 2010

Femto-neutrons or ‘femtons’ are fast neutrons of femtometer wavelength, a million times shorter than the dimensions of current nanotechnology diagnostic probes that operate at the nanometer scale. They can be used for a completely new method of cancer diagnostics, it was reported at the First Global Congress on NanoEngineering for Medicine and Biology in Houston last week.

In the first experiment of its kind, a collaboration of California Science & Engineering Corp. (CALSEC) and College of Medicine, University of California, Irvine (UCI), reported on a system using femtons that detects chemical elements by interacting with the nucleus only and is unaffected by chemical bonds. The technology was developed for the defence sector to remotely detect explosives, bioagents and drugs instantly (in 20 sec – 10 min).

The cancer diagnostic principal is based on the long-known fact that  cancerous tumours contain 50% to 90% less oxygen than healthy tissue due to accelerated growth and faster consumption of oxygen than can be supplied by the blood, called hypoxia. German Otto Warburg won a Nobel Prize in 1931 for the discovery. This means that if you can determ there is an oxygen concentration difference between a tumour and the adjacent normal tissue you can diagnose the presence of cancer.

The principle is named ‘Differential Femto Oximetry’ and the patented diagnostic probe developed by the researchers to detect the differences, an ‘Oncosensor’.

“We are ready and eager to test this interesting approach in vivo by making animals inhale carbogen, an oxygen-enriched harmless gas,” said co-author Orhan Nalcioglu, Professor and Director of the Center for Functional Onco Imaging of the UCI College of Medicine.

“Our mission is to provide needleless biopsy with negligible ‘false negatives’ that is a quantum leap over the current technologies. Oncosensor should facilitate an early warning, walk-in, painless, instant cancer diagnosis from outside the body, without intravenous fluid,” says Dr. Bogdan Maglich, CALSEC’s Chief Technology Officer and the developer of the core technology and one of “50 Champions of Innovation” elected by Fast Company magazine.

“We derive our confidence from the fact that our 30 minute measurement of the genome lengths of mammalian tissues by neutrons yielded the same result as that obtained from a year-long genome sequencing.”

Oncosensor is not an imager. It will be used in tandem with any one of the imaging systems which have achieved high sensitivity, almost 98%, in detecting tumours. But the imagers have a low ‘specificity’, about 70%, in distinguishing healthy from malignant ones, hence missing an unacceptably large number of malignancies. The California scientists predict Oncosensor’s specificity may reach 98%, which would be better than a surgical biopsy.

Dr Nisar Syed of The Long Beach Cancer Institute, Chancellor of American College of Radiation Oncology, explained: “Oncosensor has the potential to significantly enhance the eradication of malignant tumors by the heat treatment known as hyperthermia, by pointing to the surgeons the area of least oxygenated tissue.”

“Femto oximetry has also the potential for the forewarning of stroke and cardiovascular diseases which, too, are marked by oxygen change,” says co-author Dr Anna Radovic, a molecular biologist.


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