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"Small Wonder" -- The Discovery Files

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A laboratory test used to detect disease and perform biological research could be made more than three million times more sensitive, according to Princeton University researchers who combined standard biological tools with a breakthrough in nanotechnology.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Small wonder.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Biomarkers--telltale signs that can help doctors detect the presence of cancer, Alzheimer's and other conditions. A laboratory test called an immunoassay is used to detect those markers. When biomarkers are present in a sample of blood, urine or saliva, the test produces a fluorescent glow. The brighter the glow, the more markers present. But if the amount of biomarkers is too small, the light is too faint to detect.

Now researchers at Princeton have found a way to make the tests more sensitive--about three million times more sensitive. In other words, you need three million times less biomarkers to reveal the presence of certain disorders. They developed glass and gold nanostructures--that dramatically amplify the faint fluorescence from a sample. Their new method could result in significantly earlier detection and treatment.

Next the researchers are comparing their enhanced immunoassay with conventional ones in detecting breast and prostate cancers. They're developing tests to detect proteins associated with Alzheimer's at a very early stage. New light on early detection it could mean a brighter future for patients.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's national science foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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