Toronto Metropolitan University researchers are developing a cutting-edge blood test that detects PSA better and faster, promising to change the face of cancer detection

Photo: professor Dae Kun Hwang and Mitacs Globalink intern Andrea Michelle Pizano

Toronto, ON  With the Canadian Cancer Society reporting that routine prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing still misses about 15% of prostate cancers, a team of researchers at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) is developing a first-of-its-kind test that is proving to be better at finding even the most minute quantities of cancer-related proteins — starting with PSA. And this summer, they’re tapping into the expertise of a top student from Mexico to optimize their innovation.

Andrea Michelle Pizano, an undergraduate student in biomedical engineering at University of Guanajuato, is one of 651 international students in Ontario this summer – and 2,220 across Canada – who are helping to solve tough innovation challenges through a unique initiative called the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program.

Pizano is working under the guidance of Professor Dae Kun Hwang in TMU’s Chemical Engineering Department to advance the technology – a microfluidic device the size of a fingertip that applies hydrogel-based biosensing – that can detect cancer faster, using less blood. Hydrogel-based biosensing is a binding process that captures specific blood proteins using a very small amount – three millilitres or less – to detect the presence of cancer at its earliest stages.

What sets the test apart from other diagnostic platforms is its small size, its ability to analyze blood quickly – in 15 minutes or less compared to other tests that take an hour or longer – and, the fact that it can run up to 60 samples at once.

“If one technician can run 100 blood samples or more in 30 minutes, it will be possible to screen more people in the same amount of time,” said Hwang, noting that the breakthrough, which can also find multiple cancer proteins simultaneously, is poised to change the face of cancer detection in the future.

“The easiest way to think of our hydrogel is to compare it to an extremely tiny 3D fishing net,” said Hwang. “As blood passes through the specially formulated membrane (or netting), target cancer proteins are captured and then detected under a UV light.”

The test also uses blood samples as they are, eliminating the additional pre-processing steps required by other methods, and can be easily implemented in existing lab environments, making it an easy-to-use, cost-effective solution.

Hwang explained that Pizano is spending her time in the lab “perfecting the platform’s recipe,” calibrating the most effective composition and concentration of its unique hydrogel required to capture the smallest amount of cancer protein.

Planning to graduate this fall, Pizano is grateful for the Mitacs internship because it is providing her with hands-on lab experience, something she missed out on during her earlier years of study due to the pandemic. “Back in Mexico, I’m able to apply my knowledge by working as a biomedical technician in a local hospital during my final year, but I really felt that my research skills were lacking,” said Pizano, who is now hoping to return to Canada to obtain her Master’s degree. “This placement in Toronto is allowing me to come full circle, combining my academic, practical and research knowledge so that I can accomplish even greater things,” she said.

For Hwang, who has participated in the Mitacs Globalink program for several years, the opportunity to tap into the expertise of top international students to advance his projects is invaluable. “I also believe that by combining diverse views in our lab, we gain a unique perspective that helps us to solve our challenges,” he said.

In total, 2,220 students from 15 countries are taking part in the Mitacs Globalink program this summer to help solve complex problems across a range of industry sectors, from health and wellness, to robotics, technology and the environment. Designed to foster international research links and boost Canada’s economy, the 12-week internships are available at more than 70 universities.

Since 2009, Mitacs has matched more than 10,000 senior undergraduates with Canadian faculty through its Globalink Research Internship program. The program promotes Canada as a top destination for research opportunities, facilitates interdisciplinary collaborations, and showcases Canadian research expertise around the world.

“Mitacs is very proud to support students through our Globalink Research Internship program so that research like Andrea’s will ultimately help people in Ontario, in Canada and across the globe,” said Mitacs CEO John Hepburn. “The Mitacs Globalink Research Internship promotes strategic global partnerships and helps participants gain research experience in Canada, advancing innovation and creating attractive opportunities for international students who often decide to further their education here.”

SOURCE: Gail Bergman PR

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