Early detection of diseases

Early detection of diseases is aided by the body’s own nanoparticles. A hot topic among cancer researchers is vesicles, nanoparticles that flow in our veins in their billions and which have proven to hold information on the health status of the body. Now the hope is to be able to capture and decode the messages in the vesicles via a standard blood test.

Kristina Lindgärde – Publicerad den 17 February 2020

The vesicles function as the body’s internet, and carry information on the patient’s disease state. To capture and decode them – that’s the challenge, says professor Thomas Laurell. Photo: Lars Owesson

Thomas Laurell, professor of biomedical engineering at the Faculty of Engineering, was recently appointed as a distinguished professor by the Swedish Research Council. The appointment includes SEK 48 million to develop a technique to capture extracellular vesicles, i.e. vesicles outside the cells, with the help of ultrasound.

Vesicles can be described as small bubbles that are secreted from the cells and which contain different types of biomolecules that can be assimilated by, and impact, other cells. According to Thomas Laurell, a lot of attention has been given to these small messengers within cancer research.

Wants to test early detection for sepsis via vesicles

“There are more vesicles than cells in our bodies. They function as the body’s own internet. Even if there are no bacteria or pathogens in the blood, the vesicles are there and carry information on the patient’s disease state. The challenge now is to capture and decode them.”

One of the diseases he wants to test to see if early detection is possible via vesicles is sepsis, a disease resulting in more deaths than the most common forms of cancer.

“In seven out of every ten cases, it is not possible to detect the disease via a standard blood test. The bacteria are present in other organs. In addition, sepsis is a heterogeneous disease and the state of knowledge is quite poor”, he says.

Hoping to reduce the analysis time from 24 hours to one

Over the next few years, together with Johan Malmström, professor of infection medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, among others, he will develop an ultrasound technique which is to detect if a patient has the disease, even when bacteria is not detected in the blood.

In addition, it is hoped that the analysis time could be reduced from 24 hours as it is today, down to just an hour or so.  

If everything goes according to plan, the technique will be available within ten years, predicts Laurell.

Capturing with ultrasound

The main idea is to force the fluid through extremely narrow channels, so-called microfluidics, and capture the vesicles with ultrasound. When liquids flow in micrometre-small circuits in, for example, a microchip, they no longer behave chaotically and are instead highly predictable.

This makes it easier to separate and enrich particles, which Laurell does with the help of ultrasound or acoustophoresis, as particles react differently to sound depending on physical characteristics.

In the initial phase, the challenge is to map the basic physics relating to how acoustic fields affect the vesicles.

“Once our understanding of this improves, we can begin to design microchips that both effectively and selectively capture extracellular vesicles.”

For Thomas Laurell, the grant constitutes an opportunity to turn a long-term dream into reality:

“The news comes as a relief and is a fantastic opportunity. We have applied for funding before but never made it the whole way. I still wake up and think ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ It is going to be fun, now there will be more research and less grant application writing.”

In addition to Johan Malmström, Thomas Laurell will also collaborate on the project with medical researchers Adam Linder, David Erlinge, Stefan Scheding, Hans Lilja, Yvonne Ceder and David Ley.