New technique to test for prostate cancer

9 September 2014

A team of researchers at Guangdong Medical College in China has demonstrated the potential of a new test to detect prostate cancer combining surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) with a new technique called support vector machine (SVM).

As described in the journal Applied Physics Letters they combined SERS and SVM and applied them to blood samples collected from 68 healthy volunteers and 93 people who were clinically confirmed to have prostate cancer. They found their technique could identify the cases of cancer with an accuracy of 98.1%.

If the technique proves safe and effective in clinical trials, it may become a new method to improve the early detection and diagnosis of this type of cancer, said Li.

“The results demonstrate that label-free serum SERS analysis combined with SVM diagnostic algorithm has great potential for non-invasive prostate cancer screening,” said Li. “Compared to traditional screening methods, this method has the advantages of being non-invasive, highly sensitive and very simple for prostate cancer screening.”

Need for a new method of diagnosis

While a simple blood test for elevated levels of a protein marker known as prostate specific antigen (PSA) has been used for years to screen for early cases of prostate cancer, the test is far from perfect because the elevated PSA levels can be caused by many things unrelated to cancer. This contributes to over-diagnosis, uncomfortable tissue biopsies and other unnecessary treatment, which can be costly and carry significant side effects.

According to Li, many scientists have thought about applying SERS to cancer detection because the surface-sensitive type of spectroscopy has been around for years and is sensitive enough to identify key molecules in very low abundance, like pesticide residues on a contaminated surface. This would seem to make it perfect for spotting subtle signals of DNA, proteins or fatty molecules that would mark a case of cancer.

The challenge, he said, was that these changes were, if anything, too subtle. The signal differences between the serum samples taken from the 68 healthy volunteers and the 93 people with prostate cancer were too tiny to detect. So to accurately distinguish between these samples, Li’s group employed a powerful spectral data processing algorithm, support vector machine (SVM), which effectively showed the difference.

While the work is preliminary, it shows that serum SERS spectroscopy combined with SVM diagnostic algorithm has the potential to be a new method for non-invasive prostate cancer screening, Li said. The next research step, he added, is to refine the method and explore whether this method can distinguish cancer staging.


Shaoxin Li et al. Noninvasive prostate cancer screening based on serum surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy and support vector machine. Applied Physics Letters, 2 September, 2014. Available at


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