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Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

Where Science Meets Society

Research Areas

ONC-PM theme members at IGB and the Macro and Nanotechnology Laboratory (MNTL) focus on using micro RNAs and nanotechnology to develop technologies to characterize tumors and monitor how they grow, and work on designing tools to track material shed in the blood by tumors (biomarkers). Working with clinicians at the Mayo Clinic as well as a leading group in biomarker identification and validation at the University of Wisconsin, the theme seeks to help clinicians select the treatment that is most likely to work for a specific patient.

Thanks to advances in biotech instrumentation and techniques over the last decade, many new molecular targets for cancer treatment have been identified. Nonetheless, selecting optimal therapeutic regimens remains challenging. Often, there are many therapies that can slow disease progression, but they work only for some patients. Moreover, tumors can develop mutations that allow them to evade the treatment. There are no reliable predictive factors, and performing a biopsy on a tumor is invasive and expensive.

ONC-PM researchers work on non-invasive genomic “liquid biopsies” to define disease outcomes and identify the appropriate treatment. These tests look at molecules, known as micro-RNAs (miRNAs) that tumors shed in the blood of cancer patients. The goal is to develop at-home sample collection assays that can be used to identify sub-classes of cancer and to track treatment progress.

Theme members on the bioinformatics side mine genetic information and genomic sequencing studies to identify specific mutations and then identify the miRNAs that can be unique identifiers for a specific type of cancer. Individual molecules are tagged with a semiconductor quantum dot or some other type of metallic nanoparticle, and specially engineered nucleic acid probes are used that can selectively bind with the target molecule.

Patients could use a finger stick to collect a drop of blood that would be put into a cartridge and mailed to a health clinic or local diagnostics lab, eliminating the need for a personal visit. The detection approaches under development could allow inexpensive testing done with low-cost equipment, rather than a genome sequencing approach requiring a million dollar instrument.