UL scientist’s research could result in more accurate tests for disease

Mike Dwane


Mike Dwane

Dr Damien Thompson, University of Limerick, is involved in ground-breaking research that could lead to more accurate diagnostic tests for cancer and viral diseases. Picture: Alan Place
A LIMERICK scientist is hoping his research into tiny particles can help in the fight against the world’s biggest diseases.

A LIMERICK scientist is hoping his research into tiny particles can help in the fight against the world’s biggest diseases.

Dr Damien Thompson, who lectures in physics at the University of Limerick, is part of an international collaborative effort that has just published its findings.

And it is hoped that this will lead to more accurate and less expensive diagnostic tests that could stop cancer and viral diseases such as ebola, Aids and the common cold in their tracks.

Dr Thompson, from Janesboro, is a computational physicist attached to the Department of Physics and Energy and the Materials and Surface Science Institute UL. With colleagues at the IBM Zurich research centre in Switzerland, Dr Thompson has recently published a paper entitled ‘Nanoelectrical analysis of single molecules and atomic-scale materials at the solid/liquid interface’.

He admits that its a bit of a mouthful for the uninitiated.

“What it means is that we have come up with a new way of scanning liquids for chemicals. Now that doesn’t sound very exciting but what that allows us to do is give us a way of detecting even minute quantities of chemicals in a solution. And based on this new science, we are developing ways to do early detection of diseases,” he explained.

Clinicians undertaking diagnostic tests are forever on the lookout for biomarkers - proteins, antibodies and other indications of disease. But the molecules are so small at the early stage of disease, or the tests can be hampered by electrical interference from equipment to such an extent, that accurate readings become difficult.

“But if we can scan blood for these minute concentrations of chemicals, we could diagnose cancer very early or viral infections - and yes that includes ebola - very early. When your body gets attacked by something and is under stress; you get a viral infection say, your immune system immediately kicks in and you start creating chemicals but there could be a long time lag between that immune response and you actually feeling sick. You could have been under attack for a long time before you actually go to the doctor,” explained Dr Thompson.

But the earlier the intervention the better, he said.

“Cancer is a ball of cells and you have a better chance of zapping it out at an earlier stage before it does the damage. It’s about trying to diagnose things and get drugs into people before the disease actually takes hold

“In the early incubation stage of disease, these signs could be literally a few molecules. It has been impossible until now to detect them and this new method could do that but it’s new science,” he stressed.

A problem for scientists and clinicians until now has been in conducting tests sensitive enough and discriminatory enough to pick up such minute signs of disease.

Sensors can pick up energy levels in molecules that reveal their nature but electrical interference from the instruments themselves can mess up the tests.

The breakthrough in how to deal with what Dr Thompson calls noise is through the insertion of a thin layer of materials called alkanes between the molecules and the sensor surface.

“The trick is to slow the molecule down and hold it at a safe distance from the sensor surface. You need to slide something in between the molecule and the surface and that something is a layer of alkanes.

These, he explained, were “really cheap and cheerful bog standard chemicals and are all you need to put between the probe and your solution to actually allow that electrical insulation - you can measure the molecules’ energy levels without actually shagging up the electrical signal”.

The technique has worked in model fluids but the next step on the journey for Dr Thompson and colleagues is to get it working in blood.

“We want to scale it up so that it actually works in blood and to fine tune it so we can look for particular proteins, particular antibodies, particular strands of DNA that are responsible for particular diseases,” he explained.

“But to actually get it working in blood is a tall order because it is such a complex fluid. But we are looking for funding now jointly with IBM Zurich through the Horizon 2020 programme, a new pot of money in Europe.”