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Early laboratory diagnosis


Tumour cells release unique breakdown components into the blood; known as biological markers (biomarkers), these can be used as to diagnose cancer. The immune system, confronted with these unusual biomarkers, often reacts to make antibodies (autoantibodies) against them. Professor Robertson's group at Nottingham University have shown that the presence of these autoantibodies can signal the early onset of cancer. A company based on their findings measures several of these antibodies in the serum of patients as a diagnostic service, each measurement being a separate test.

Professor Roitt and his team have developed a generic system in which each serum undergoes multiple tests (multiplexing) in a single well of a 96-well plate containing an array of spots, each of which functions as an individual test (see illustration). The system was patented and published in Clinical Chemistry (2008), and a company, NALIA Systems Ltd, formed. 


1. To show that the NALIA array provides a very economical alternative to the current Nottingham system for multiple autoantibody tests diagnosing early cancer.

2. To improve the sensitivity and specificity of tests for early cancer diagnosis by recognition of novel biomarker patterns. This will enable earlier therapy, improving the outcome for patients.

3. To seek commercial exploitation of the findings to support further research.

The project

The Nottingham group are keen to collaborate with our Middlesex team who, when funding is available, will create arrays using the NALIA system to combine the various autoantibody tests into a single multiplexed operation.

Subsequently, we will try to identify new autoantibodies. The search for tumour-related small metabolites on biomarkers in serum and urine by mass spectroscopy (metabolomics) is a relatively unexplored area; Dr Shah is highly experienced in the use of this technology and has the sophisticated equipment needed here in the University.

By adding results from arrays for the original tumour components with those from autoantibody arrays and metabolomics, plus analysis of the raised DNA in patients' blood (with a close colleague, Professor I. Cree, Head of Pathology at Warwick University Hospital), we would accumulate a very large number of different results for each patient. This would allow identification of novel patterns by a process called 'neural network analysis'; these should provide new, highly sensitive and accurate diagnosis of many different types of cancer at an early stage. Starting therapy then will greatly improve prospects for patients.

Project team

Dr S. Butler – Project leader

Dr A. Shah – Metabolomics (Mass Spec)

Professor I.M. Roitt – Scientific support

Dr Y. Yatsenko – Postgraduate Research Assistant

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