Gargle with gold to find oral cancer

A revolutionary diagnostic system under development in Israel uses a mouthwash embedded with gold nano-particles to detect cancer cells.

Gold-crystals (photo credit: Alchemist-hp (talk))
Gold-crystals (photo credit: Alchemist-hp (talk))

Imagine buying a kit at your local pharmacy to test for oral cancer. That may become a reality, thanks to Prof. Dror Fixler and his team at the Advanced Light Microscopy Laboratory at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. They have invented a mouthwash embedded with gold nanoparticles — a non-invasive optical system that detects cancer of the head, neck, tongue or throat. This technology can diagnose cancers that currently must be confirmed by surgical biopsy. The solution was successfully tested in animal models, showing 97 percent specificity and 87.5% sensitivity.

Gold nanoparticles were already used for finding cancer cells…our job was figuring out how to use them in our optical setup for detection.

Now the gold gargle is in human trials supervised by two top physicians at Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer: Prof. Michael Wolff, head of the department of otolaryngology, head and neck Surgery; and Prof. Avraham Hirshberg, a researcher in the department of oral pathology and oral medicine. In addition, the university’s technology transfer company is in early talks with potential commercial partners.

The three-year research behind this breakthrough constituted the doctoral thesis of Fixler’s student, Rinat Ankri. “Gold nanoparticles were already used for finding cancer cells,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “Our job was figuring out how to use them in our optical setup for detection.”

Dror Fixler (photo courtesy of Israel21C)
Dror Fixler (photo courtesy of Israel21C)

Fixler, a renowned electro-optics expert, had the notion of combining two existing technologies to make this idea work. Nobody ever thought about such a combination before, he says, perhaps because they are from totally different disciplines — one from pure physics and the other from bio-molecular imaging. “I am always thinking how I can use my knowledge and budget to do what smarter and richer people haven’t accomplished,” he jokes.

 Shining a light on the matter

From the discipline of physics he focused on diffusion reflection, until now a theoretical approach to learning about the properties of an object by shining a light on it and measuring the intensity of the light versus the distance from its source. He mixed that idea with quantum optics, where nano-sized particles are coated with antibodies to react visually with a specific target antigen – for example, cancer cells — that cannot otherwise be detected.

Some companies already have commercial products based on this principle, but they need a very high concentration of particles in order to see anything, says Fixler. If one technology was only theoretical and the other impractical, putting them together yielded an innovation that works.

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