In brief

Researchers leveraged Raman spectroscopy to develop a simplified and rapid diagnostic tool that measures levels of haptoglobin in patient blood samples, offering improved sensitivity and specificity compared to gold standard approaches.

Photo credit: Tavo Romann / Wikimedia Commons (Licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Ovarian cancer fingerprinting in real time

12 Jan 2024

A new portable diagnostic technology promises unparalleled speed, accuracy and clinical utility for ovarian cancer diagnoses.

No two people have the exact same fingerprints; their characteristic loops, whorls and arches form distinct patterns that can tell even identical twins apart. Likewise, biomolecules like proteins used to distinguish between cancer cells and healthy tissues have unique ‘fingerprints’ that can be picked up using an analytical technique called Raman spectroscopy (RS).

In the context of ovarian cancer, RS could have an edge over gold standard approaches such as the CA125 blood test and histological methods. However, because it requires complex and expensive equipment, RS isn’t feasible across many clinical settings. Moreover, conventional RS is not sensitive enough to detect low biomarker concentrations, which reduces its effectiveness for early-stage ovarian cancer detection.

Malini Olivo, who leads the Translational Biophotonics Laboratory at A*STAR Skin Research Labs (A*SRL) where she is a Distinguished Principal Scientist, collaborated with Mahesh Choolani from the National University of Singapore, to develop a next-generation RS-based ovarian cancer diagnostic technology.

The team zeroed in on haptoglobin (Hp): a protein biomarker which collaborators had previously found in ovarian cyst fluids, detectable even in patients with early-stage ovarian cancer. Based on those findings, the team developed a miniaturised and portable Raman-based system capable of rapidly measuring even trace levels of Hp.

“It doesn’t require invasive procedures or contrast agents, making it patient-friendly,” said Olivo, who referred to the new platform as a ‘game-changer’. The technology was designed to only detect a specific spectral band at the 1500 to 1700 cm-1 wavelength which occurs in the presence of Hp. This strategy markedly lowered the cost and complexity of the innovative diagnostic compared to traditional RS.

Despite being simplified, the tool boasted 100 percent sensitivity and 85 percent specificity when distinguishing between benign and malignant tumours in validation tests using samples from ovarian cancer patients. According to Olivo, this means that the new RS platform can outperform CA125 blood tests by delivering fewer false positives. Moreover, providing real-time diagnoses makes it more valuable to cancer surgeons than histopathology tests that take weeks to provide answers.

“This can significantly impact cancer treatment strategies, particularly for cancers with vague symptoms or those in need of intraoperative assessments, ultimately contributing to better patient care and outcomes across various cancer types,” concluded Olivo.

The research group is currently integrating automation into their RS diagnostic workflow to further streamline sample preparation and boost clinical usability. They are also incorporating machine learning tools to enhance the accuracy of the innovative new technology, which they have patented and are working towards commercialising.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from A*STAR Skin Research Labs (A*SRL).

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Moothanchery, M., Perumal, J., Mahyuddin, A.P., Singh, G., Choolani, M., et al. Rapid and sensitive detection of ovarian cancer biomarker using a portable single peak Raman detection method. Scientific Reports 12, 12459 (2022). | article

About the Researchers

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Malini Olivo

Distinguished Principal Scientist

A*STAR Skin Research Labs (A*SRL)
Malini Olivo is a Distinguished Principal Scientist at A*STAR Skin Research Labs (A*SRL) where she leads the Translational Biophotonics Laboratory. Concurrently, she is also an Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, NTU; Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, National University Health System, NUS, Singapore; and Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, Dublin, Ireland. She obtained a PhD degree in Bio-Medical Physics in 1990 from University Malaya/University College London (UCL) and did her post-doctoral training between 1991 and 1995 at UCL, UK and both McMaster University and University of Toronto, Canada. Her current research interest is in medtech and nano-biophotonics and its applications in translational medicine. Her efforts include bridging the gap between cutting edge optical technologies and unmet clinical needs by developing in-house photonics-based devices for various industries. She has succeeded in obtaining competitive research funding of over USD 25 million to support her research in Singapore and overseas. She has published over 500 papers, three books and 20 book chapters, and filed close to 50 patents on technology platforms and devices. She is also the co- founder of three medtech companies. Furthermore, she holds many advisory international roles and is well recognised internationally for her research in biophotonics for her pioneering research contributions. She has conferred as the Fellow of Optical Society of America (OSA), Fellow of American Institute of Medical Bioengineering (AIMBE) and Fellow of Institute of Physics, UK.
Jayakumar Perumal is a Senior Scientist I at the Translational Biophotonics Laboratory at A*STAR Skin Research Labs (A*SRL). In 2010, Perumal obtained his PhD in South Korea, specialising in materials engineering and surface chemistry—in particular on polymer-based microfluidics fabrication for various bio-chemical applications. He came to Singapore in 2011 and has been working in A*STAR for more than 12 years. His research interests were mainly on optical diagnostic platform assay development similar to his work on rapid Raman/SERS based portable diagnostics and applying it on different disease biomarker detection. He is working on newer types of non-lithography based scalable plasmonic substrates for point-of-care detection of different bio-chemical analytes. Perumal has several patents and publications to his credit, and he is working towards the development of alpha prototype for early ovarian cancer diagnostics that has drawn strong interest from industries.

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group