Preparations of media for cultivating cancer cells, being made in cancer research laboratories at the Old Road Campus research building at Oxford University, in Oxford, Britain May 11, 2016. Reuters/Peter Nicholls

A hydrogel-based biochip with 3D cells may make bowel cancer detection easier, a study by scientists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology (EIMB RAS) has suggested. As per American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common type of cancer.

The cancer develops with minimal clinical symptoms in the early stages. Treatment is effective only when the cancer is detected early. Despite the best treatment efforts, CRC’s five-year survival rate does not exceed 36 percent.

Diagnostic methods that are currently used are not sufficient for early detection of bowel cancer. Invasive studies like colonoscopy do not provide an overall picture of the distribution and development of colorectal cancer. Moreover, they are many a time traumatic for the patients. Analyses done in vitro have low specificity.

However, the scientists of the new study claim that their hydrogel-based biochip will help diagnose CRC better. Their method involves simultaneous detection of various substances in a patient’s blood. These substances are basically auto-antibodies against tumour-associated glycans. They are found in the serum of patients at early stages of cancer. Oncomarkers and immunoglobulins of different classes were also looked at by the scientists.

The researchers turned to glycobiology that focuses on glycans, most important biological molecules. Apart from their numerous functions, Glycans act as building materials and nutrients for cells and are important for contact between cells. They are also crucial for organ growth. Glycans in tumour cells are special and that enabled the scientists to differentiate them from healthy cells.

According to The Times of India, the researchers use auto-antibodies to detect glycans in tumours. Auto-antibodies against tumour-associated glycans react exclusively with glycans that are only found in CRC cells. Next they developed microchips consisting of 3D cells made from a special gel. The gel contained the molecular probes (reagents).

Scientists then analysed sera of 33 patients with CRC, 27 patients with inflammatory bowel disease and 69 healthy donors. They were surprised to find that the chips were able to diagnose CRC in 95 per cent of cases compared to traditional cases’ 79 percent. Moreover, sensitivity of CRC detection was 87 percent compared to 21 percent for traditional methods.