University of California, Irvine chemists have found an inexpensive, discreet way for men to test themselves for prostate cancer in their own bathrooms. They hope that through early detection their new test will improve the lives of the estimated 240,000 American men who will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year.

After more than a decade of research, UC Irvine scientists have found a way to clearly identify usable cancer markers in urine. They are now working to develop a faster, cheaper, and far more accurate test for prostate cancer to be sold over the counter.

"Our goal is a device the size of a home pregnancy test priced around $10. You would buy it at the drugstore or the grocery store and test yourself," the study's corresponding author, Reginald Penner, UC Irvine Chancellor's Professor of chemistry, said in a press release. "We're on the verge of a very important breakthrough in a new era of personal health management."

The prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, test is the current standard for prostate cancer screening. However, the test is controversial, to say the least. Up to 60 percent of patients face misdiagnosis, over-treatment, or a delayed diagnosis. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends against PSA testing.

"A big problem is that the approach used now does not catch cancer soon enough," study co-author Gregory Weiss, a UC Irvine biochemist, said in a press release. "We want this to be a disruptive technology that will change how we save lives and that will bring down healthcare costs drastically."

Using Viruses to Outwit Cancer

The research team developed an entirely new kind of biosensor. They added minuscule protein receptors to tiny viruses called bacteriophages, or phages for short, and then wrapped the phages in additional receptors to increase the transmission of signals from any cancer molecules present in the urine sample.

"The receptors for recognizing the cancer markers are really inexpensive to make. That's why we chose these viruses," Weiss said. "They're grown in a yeasty, brothy solution—kind of like chicken broth—that could easily be mixed on a huge scale."

The receptors are also highly adaptable—they don’t need to be refrigerated and can withstand very high temperatures, making the test a great candidate for use in developing countries.

The UC Irvine team’s testing technique has been patented and licensed to a commercial partner, and they hope to begin human clinical trials in the near future, with an eye on approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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