College of LAS « Illinois

Cover Story

A Race to the Bottom: Security Checkpoints in the Blood

Illinois researchers search for a better way to screen for prostate cancer.


Most people are familiar with winding security lines at busy airports, as frazzled travelers empty their pockets and shuffle through screeners. The same thing may someday be happening at the nano-scale level, as DNA moves through an incredibly small screening device developed by University of Illinois researchers. But instead of looking for terrorist threats in the air, this screening device will be looking for biological terrorists in our blood.

More specifically, it will be looking for biomarkers for prostate cancer.

Traditionally, men have been screened for prostate cancer with the longstanding prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test—not to be confused with the TSA, which screens people at airports. But the PSA, like the TSA, has become controversial in recent years.

“The PSA test is under the gun,” says Ann Nardulli, an LAS professor of molecular and integrative physiology. Some health care experts say that the test is not a good prognostic marker because high PSA levels can be caused by reasons other than prostate cancer. As a result, the test unnecessarily sends men to surgery; and surgery poses risks of its own, such as impotence and incontinence.

“There’s a need for better cancer markers for prostate cancer,” Nardulli says, so her lab has teamed up with U of I engineer Rashid Bashir and two investigators at the Mayo Clinic to devise a more accurate screening tool using nanotechnology. She is working on a way to tag methylated DNA. DNA methylation plays a key role in regulating the expression of genes, but it is believed that certain genes are more methylated in prostate cancer patients.

With this in mind, Nardulli’s lab has found a way to express and purify a protein that binds to methylated DNA. They supplied Bashir’s lab with this protein, and the engineers are taking it from there, creating a nano-scale device that can detect methylated DNA tagged with this protein.

By Doug Peterson
Summer 2012