On 16-18th July 2018, 24 scientists gathered to brainstorm and develop novel ideas for improving sensor technologies for liquid biopsies. Organised by CRUK, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), this workshop was designed to bring together researchers from different disciplines to combat the challenges that are presented by liquid biopsy-based assays for early cancer detection.
Over the course of the three days, participants shared their experiences and assembled into teams to tackle a particular aspect. At the end of the sandpit, the teams pitched their ideas to the funding panel and four successful teams were awarded £100,000 each to take their project further. Among the successful teams were Oxford’s Bethan Psaila (Radcliffe Department of Medicine) and Tingting Zhu (Institute of Biomedical Engineering).
Team TEP-eDx, led by Bethan Psaila, aims to exploit the fact that platelets in the blood alter their content in response to malignancy. These so-called tumour educated platelets take up DNA and other cancer-derived products such as extracellular vesicles. Team TEP-eDx will work towards identifying and sorting these platelets from the blood so that they can be analysed for early detection.
An area of great promise for liquid biopsy early detection assays is the measurement of circulating DNA shed from tumour cells (ctDNA). However, the challenge for this field is the very low amount of ctDNA that is released into the blood. Tingting Zhu is on team EpiEnrich, led by Charlie Massie (University of Cambridge), which aims to increase the sensitivity of ctDNA assays by first enriching ctDNA from blood while it is still structured as chromatin (a structure in which DNA is wrapped around a core of proteins to enable efficient packaging and organisation inside cells). Chromatin from cancer cells carries specific markers, which can be used to specifically capture and enrich tumour-derived DNA.
Team ExoPop, led by David Carter (Oxford Brookes University), includes both Bethan and Tingting. Their project focusses on profiling extracellular vesicles (EVs), membrane-enclosed spheres containing various cargoes that are released from cells, including cancer cells. The issue with current approaches is that cancer EVs are present in very low numbers and so traditional bulk analysis of EVs in the blood fails to detect cancer-specific signals above the normal EV background. Team ExoPop will develop a new protocol that uses a current to pop individual EVs and characterise each EV’s contents to allow their future use as an early detection test.
For more information about future innovation sandpits and awards, please see the CRUK website.