Research Highlights

Nanosensors for breast cancer

Published online 16 September 2015

Scientists produce nanosensors that can detect signature mutated proteins involved in breast cancer.

Pakinam Amer

Scientists at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) have developed a sensor chip that can detect and identify very low concentrations of mutated proteins in human plasma, for early diagnosis of breast cancer and other degenerative diseases1

It is the first time scientists use nanosensors to detect a mixture of peptides — down to the single amino acid level — implicated in breast cancer development, says lead author Enzo Di Fabrizio from KAUST. 

An altered gene can be transcribed and translated into an abnormal protein, such as in the mutation of amino acid M1775R that can result in the alteration of the BRCA1 protein — the mutation scrutinized in this study, and which represents the signature of breast cancer. 

The team of scientists manufactured a sensor in which each pixel of the array is a detector of a few molecules. “By ‘reading’ all pixels, the scientists are able to devise the whole content of a complex mixture," such as peptides derived from human samples.

It’s based on a phenomena called ‘plasmonic enhancement’. “When proper nanostructures made by noble metals such as silver or gold are illuminated by a laser in the visible [spectrum], the electrical field is concentrated in a spatial region of few nanometre squares,” explains Di Fabrizio. “In this small area, the electrical field is very intense and can render even a single molecule detectable.” 

The production of the sensor chip can be scaled up and mass produced, he says, adding that it is fit for several applications, “not only in cancer but also in pollution and environmental studies and in sport doping prevention.”


  1. Coluccio, M. L. et al. Detection of single amino acid mutation in human breast cancer by disordered plasmonic self-similar chain. Sci. Adv. (2015).