You know graphene, that thin, strong and wonderfully versatile material that might help produce drinking water on the cheap, turn carbon dioxide into liquid fuels and build better batteries? Well, a team of scientists at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) say cancer detection can be added to its list of potential applications, after discovering that it is capable of revealing cancerous cells in the brain.

Consisting of a one-atom thick layer of carbon atoms connected to one another in a honeycomb pattern, graphene boasts a set of properties that most materials would die for. Incredibly strong, flexible and light, and highly conductive of heat and electricity, its possible uses extend far beyond the examples offered above, raising the prospect of everything from stronger motorbike helmets to high-performance speakers.

But it is the material's electrical conductivity that the UIC scientists were interested in, because as it turns out, it can reveal a thing or two about cancer in the brain.

The atoms that make up graphene's honeycomb pattern share a cloud of electrons that float around the material's surface. But the scientists have found that the charge distribution is altered when the graphene comes into contact with a cancerous cell, whose hyperactivity creates a higher negative charge, with more protons released on its surface.

"Graphene is the thinnest known material and is very sensitive to whatever happens on its surface," said Vikas Berry, head of chemical engineering at UIC and leader of the research. "The (cancer) cell's interface with graphene rearranges the charge distribution in graphene, which modifies the energy of atomic vibration as detected by Raman spectroscopy."

Using this technique, the researchers say they were able to differentiate a single healthy cell from a single cultured glioblastoma cell. Glioblastomas are the most common and fatal form of brain cancer, with a survival rate beyond two years of just 30 percent. Part of the reason they are so deadly is because while surgeons can remove tumors, the cancerous cells often take root deep in the brain and cause other tumors to form. This graphene-inspired technique could offer a non-invasive way of keeping them at bay.

"Once a patient has brain tumor surgery, we could use this technique to see if the tumor relapses," says Berry. "For this, we would need a cell sample we could interface with graphene and look to see if cancer cells are still present."

We have seen glimpses of graphene's potential when it comes to cancer, with some researchers finding that a graphene derivative seems to interfere with cancer stem cells, and others developing a graphene-based biosensor that can detect DNA mutations in real time. Like those projects, this latest diagnostic tool is still a way off from clinical use, with the scientists now studying the technique in a mouse model of cancer. They do describe the results as very promising, however, and are eyeing experiments with patient biopsies in the future. They also note that the approach could one day be used to distinguish different types of bacteria, and also detect sickle cells.

The research was published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

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