Current cancer screening often requires painful procedures and weeks of waiting to obtain results. But what if doctors could read a biological sample with a small hand-held device and come back with an answer in less than an hour?

A group of researchers has developed a device that can detect even low levels of certain biomarkers associated with cancer, according to a paper published yesterday in Nature Nanotechnology (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group).

"Today, it takes a room filled with computers to evaluate a clinically relevant sample of cancer biomarkers and the results aren't quickly available," Shana Kelley, a professor at the University of Toronto's schools of medicine and pharmacy and lead investigator on the project, said in a prepared statement. "Our team was able to measure biomolecules on an electronic chip the size of your fingertip."

By shrinking the equipment to a device the size of a BlackBerry, as the researchers propose, "we could do a lot more screening in the future," Kelley told Bloomberg News. Kelley and her team hope that the microchip technology, which uses electrodes and nucleic acid sensors engineered on a nanoscale to detect even diffuse traces of cancer, will be able to find not only the presence of cancer in patients but also its kind and severity.

Even though a rush of recent research has uncovered many new cancer biomarkers, in the lab, clinicians aren't often able to test for every known signal. As Kelley explained to Canada's National Post: "We don't look for as many molecular markers as we actually could when doing clinical diagnosis of things like cancer because it's too expensive to do the analysis."

The researchers have tested the technology on biopsy samples, but have yet to fine-tune it for clinical screening. They hope to have it ready for commercial use—at least in Canada—within the next five years. Tough-to-beat cancers, for which current screening is lacking, such as prostate cancer, will be the first targets, although, Kelley noted, it could also prove useful in diagnosing infectious diseases.

Slides of pancreatic cancer such as this one may no longer be necessary for screening if doctors can rely more on high-powered and portable processing to pick up on key cancer biomarkers (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/NIH)