By CORY NEALON
Published March 17, 2023
Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women in the United States. It is also the leading cause of cancer death in the nation.
To detect lung cancer sooner and improve treatment, a UB-led research team is developing a new, low-cost blood test that aims to make screening more widely available.
“Our goal is to develop a liquid biopsy test that’s simple, fast, accurate and cost-effective. If we do that, we can expand screening to millions of people, help catch lung cancer earlier and improve treatment plans for those suffering from this terrible disease,” says Yun Wu, associate professor of biomedical engineering, a joint program of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Wu is principal investigator of two National Institutes of Health grants totaling more than $3.5 million that support this work.
Co-principal investigators include Grace Dy, chief and professor of thoracic oncology at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center; retired UB faculty member Kate Rittenhouse-Olson, president and founder of UB spinoff company For-Robin; and Fumito Ito, visiting associate professor of surgery at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
Oftentimes, lung cancer is not symptomatic until later stages, when it becomes especially difficult to treat. Screening is available through low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) and tissue biopsy, but these methods are hampered by high false-positive rates, radiation exposure, invasive procedures and relatively high costs.
Liquid biopsies, on the other hand, consist of drawing blood — like any common blood test. Some tests are already available to doctors; however, they are often limited by poor accuracy and, thus, used as an auxiliary tool.
Wu and her collaborators are working on improving liquid biopsies by developing new techniques that spot early evidence of the disease with high sensitivity and specificity.
Accordingly, the team is developing a light-based biosensor named Exosome Protein microRNA OneStop Sensor (Exo-PROS). This work is the basis of the first grant, a five-year, $3.12 million Research Project Grant (RO1) from NIH’s National Cancer Institute.
The research team has demonstrated the Exo-PROS assay has the potential to simultaneously detect multiple types of biomarkers in tumor-derived exosomes, which are tiny, sac-like structures released by cancer cells that contain some of the cell’s proteins, DNA and RNA.
The other grant is a two-year, $431,000 Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award, also awarded by NIH’s National Cancer Institute.
In this project, researchers will evaluate exosomal Thomsen-Friedenreich glycoantigen — an antigen that Dy recently identified with the aid of an antibody developed by Rittenhouse-Olson — as a potential biomarker for liquid biopsy screening.
Developing an effective device and reliable biomarkers has the potential to increase lung cancer detection at early stages, Wu says. It will also allow doctors to take multiple blood samples over time, which can provide greater understanding of an individual’s response to cancer treatment.
The team will use Exo-PROS assay to follow lung cancer patients receiving immunotherapy and assist in clinical decision-making.