Lung cancer may not be the first thought that crosses the mind when talking about breathalyzer tests. But, what if lung cancer detection were as easy as breathing into a device? That is the goal of a group of researchers from the University of Exeter who have recently taken a new approach to e-nose technology integrated with multi-layered graphene for early detection of lung cancer.

The lack of clinical symptoms of early-stage lung cancer can lead to frequent late-stage diagnoses and subsequent complications in bringing a cure to patients. The danger comes from the unrestrainable nature of abnormal cells that begin in one or both lungs and are prone to spread to other parts of the human body rapidly.

Due to the severity of lung cancer, the necessity of monitoring specific cancer markers (CMs) present in the exhaled volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is of particular interest for human safety and quality of life reasons. CM monitoring can be greatly improved by finding methods for early-stage disease diagnosis, specifically by developing novel 2D materials-based e-nose (breath sensor) approaches with ultra-sensitive and highly selective capabilities.

A team of scientists led by the lab of Anna Baldycheva, PhD, assistant professor in the department of engineering and center for graphene science, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, has developed a new technique that could create a highly sensitive graphene biosensor with the capability to detect molecules of the most common lung cancer biomarkers, unlocking early-stage lung cancer diagnosis.

Their paper, “Multi-layer graphene as a selective detector for future lung cancer biosensing platforms” was published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s peer-reviewed journal Nanoscale.

Ben Hogan, PhD, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter and co-author of the paper explained, “The new biosensors which we have developed show that graphene has significant potential for use as an electrode in e-nose devices. For the first time, we have shown that with suitable patterning graphene can be used as a specific, selective, and sensitive detector for biomarkers.”

They demonstrated that bare multi-layer graphene (either flat or patterned) can contribute to e-nose engineering. They wrote that this material “can detect the appearance of specific CMs in real and short times, providing a high throughput platform for functional studies and discrimination of cancer signatures.” The team noted that “MLG consists of a number of layers, permeated by various natural defects, and as such, it exhibits strong chemical affinity and specificity toward other atoms and molecules in its vicinity.”

The team reported the results of electrical measurements for f-MLG and p-MLG electrodes while exposing three CM solutions of various concentrations (ethanol, isopropanol, and acetone in the range of 1.4–3.3 × 105 ppm), where they observed a noticeable increase of electrical conductivity for p-MLG electrodes, particularly during exposure to acetone.

The research team believes the newly developed device displays the potential to identify specific lung cancer markers at the earliest possible stage, in a convenient and reusable way—making it both cost-effective and highly beneficial for health service providers worldwide. As there are currently no cheap, simple, or widely available screening methods for early diagnosis of lung cancer, new approaches are incredibly important. The team believes this could be the first step toward creating new, improved, and cheaper e-nose devices that could give the earliest possible lung cancer diagnosis.

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