Detecting cancer’s biochemical ‘fingerprint’ for early diagnosis

11 Feb 2013

Dr Fiona Lyng, Dublin Institute of Technology, (right) is presented with the Enterprise Ireland 'One to Watch Award 2011' by Minister Seán Sherlock, TD, (centre), and Feargal O'Morain, former executive director at Enterprise Ireland

Detecting cancer in its early stages could help to make treatment more effective. Claire O’Connell found out from Dr Fiona Lyng about Cervassist, an emerging technology that uses spectroscopy to analyse tissue samples and spot when cells are showing signs of abnormality.

So far the technology has been focusing on assessing cervical smear samples, which are routinely collected as part of screening programmes for cervical cancer in many countries.

Cervical cancer is the one of the most common female cancers in Europe, and women are encouraged to be screened every few years. Cells are removed from the neck of the womb, and they are examined by eye under a microscope. If there are abnormal or potentially cancerous cells in the sample, the person can be monitored or treated as appropriate.

Cervassist, which is being developed at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), could offer another view of those cells on the microscope slide. By shining laser light on the samples and collecting some of the scattered radiation, the technology can automatically analyse the biochemical content of the cells, explains Lyng, who is manager of the DIT Centre for Radiation and Environmental Science.

“We use Raman spectroscopy to analyse the cervical samples – it’s a vibrational spectroscopic technique that gives a biochemical fingerprint of a sample,” she says. “If you shine laser light on a sample, light is scattered back and we collect the inelastic scatter, which contains information about the biochemical components in the sample, the proteins, nucleic acids, lipids and carbohydrates.”

Stained cells as viewed via a conventional light microscope

Stained cells as viewed via a conventional light microscope. Dr Fiona Lyng is looking to use Raman scatter to help the process of identifying abnormal cells

Validating the technology

The team at DIT, funded by Enterprise Ireland, has been working with Prof John O’Leary and Dr Cara Martin at the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital in Dublin, building up a database of Raman fingerprints from normal, abnormal and cancerous cells in order to develop and validate the technology.

Preliminary results suggest the Raman approach offers around 98pc accuracy, according to Lyng, and the hope is that the technology could eventually support screening programmes.

“It could be used as an initial screening step, to screen out all the normal samples – which are the bulk of the samples – and highlight the ones that are abnormal and have cytologists assess them,” she explains.
Lyng, who won the Enterprise Ireland ‘One to Watch’ award in 2011, has been working closely with DIT Hothouse, and Cervassist technology has been licensed to business partner Raman Diagnostics. At the moment, the drive is on to validate the technology with larger numbers of samples before moving to a clinical setting.

“We are now building up the numbers of the different classes of cervical cytology samples, and ultimately we want to move the Raman microscope into the current cytology setting and compare it directly, side by side with the normal screening programme,” says Lyng.

The research team has also been investigating whether Raman spectroscopy could help to identify the presence of specific human papilloma viruses (HPV) in cervical samples, which are linked with increased cancer risk.

SFI grant

Meanwhile, Lyng has just been awarded a grant from Science Foundation Ireland to develop the Raman technology to analyse oral cancer.

“For Raman spectroscopy, the ultimate goal would be to have an in vivo probe, so we wanted to concentrate on sites that are accessible to a fibre optic probe, and that’s one of the reasons we decided to have a look at analysing samples from the mouth,” she explains.

Lyng will work with Prof Stephen Flint from the Dublin Dental University Hospital on the four-year grant: “We are looking to understand what the Raman spectra look like for normal, pre-cancer and cancer cells in the mouth and then take what we know from our work with cervical cancer and apply it to oral cancer.” is hosting Med Tech Focus, an initiative which over coming months will cover news, reports, interviews and videos, documenting Ireland’s leading role in one of the hottest sectors in technology.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication