A 10-minute test is 10 times faster than traditional methods for detecting tumor biomarkers, says Van Waes. “The speed is really important,” says Linda Pilarski, Canada Research Chair in biomedical nanotechnology at the University of Alberta’s Cross Cancer Institute. “Ideally, you want the result while the patient is still there, so they don’t go away and not come back.” Starting treatment even a few weeks earlier can make a difference for cancer patients. And the speed, ease, and cost of the test could mean that more patients get screened, says Pilarski.
“Biomarkers are becoming the whole basis for cancer care,” says Pilarski. She hopes that cheap, fast tests like McDevitt’s will eventually make even finer distinctions. Patients with the same diagnosis can have cancers that differ subtly at the molecular level, she says, and “molecular tests can stratify patients” into subgroups with different treatment needs. Breast-cancer patients, for example, are already screened for a biomarker called HER2 to determine whether they should be given the drug Herceptin.
McDevitt is also working to incorporate the cell-screening technology with a test for cancer biomarkers in saliva. Adding more biomarkers to the test should increase its sensitivity and specificity, says Redding. The test might also be adapted for cervical cancer: the scraping of cells in a Pap smear is similar to that in an oral-cancer biopsy.