The Chemistry that provides better Health Care
Personalized medicine is the new mantra of the Health Care system. Chemists at UiO are contributing in the development of simpler, faster and more reliable tools of diagnostics.
Interdisciplinary elite research
The Faculty of Mathematics and Natural sciences wants to back Interdisciplinary research. They see this as the chief instrument to trigger scientific development. Within a reasonable timeframe, they see collaboration creating new international competitive research communities that will change and positively develop the Faculty.
By 2015, the Faculty has 15 of these research communities. They have been named “Strategic Research Initiative”. Diatech@UiO is one of these elite research communities. Diatech is a partnership between the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Physics and the School of Pharmacy at the University of Oslo, in addition to groups originating from the Oslo University Hospital.
Most people are familiar with the following situation: You feel ill and go to the doctors. She takes a blood sample and sends it to analysis.
A couple of days later you know what is wrong: Maybe your blood sugar is too high, maybe they have detected an enzyme that reveals that your liver is overburdened or, if you are in bad luck, maybe the doctors have detected a protein revealing a growing cancer tumor.
The laboratories are capable of detecting a series of diseases and illnesses by analyzing blood and tissue samples.
The disease can have one or several revealing markers that can be detected during testing, and the analyzing is all about searching for these markers – for example certain proteins or lipids.
However, tests like these are time consuming, complicated and unprecise and there is certainly room for improvement. This has led chemists, physicists and pharmacists at UiO to partner up in order to create better methods of diagnostics.
Simple, fast and reliable testing
– Our goal is to contribute to the development of new technologies and modern tools to be utilized in future medical diagnostics. Hospitals are in need of fast and reliable tests that rapidly can determine what is wrong with newly arrived patients. We want to contribute in the development of these types of tests, says Elsa Lundanes at the Department of Chemistry. She is head of Diatech.
Lundanes imagines that in the future patients will be able to conduct several tests at home, for example by placing a small blood sample on a paper filter.
Furthermore, the patient can take a picture of the result with a smart phone and send the picture to a laboratory for analysis. However, nobody is going to diagnose themselves because that will necessarily remain be the doctor’s responsibility.
Known by many names
The Diatech group is inspired by the international progress currently seen in personalized medicine, also called tailor made medicine or precision medicine.
As we say in Norway: A treasured child goes by many names.
Personalized medicine is a lot about mapping out a singular individual’s specific genes to detect the absolute best personal treatment, but better medical diagnostics is also an important element.
Personalized medicine implies that in the future patients with similar symptoms might not necessarily receive the same treatment. Each individual patient will instead receive treatment that is exactly tailored for their personal genetics and disease.
Personalized medicine technology is developing at a staggering pace; this could revolutionize the treatment of a long line of diseases and illnesses.
In Norway personalized treatment is currently under assessment by several health institutions. And in the USA President Barack Obama announced in January 2015 the start of a large scale investment within this area of research.
Contributing to our strengths
– What can tiny Norway do in the grand scale of things that the Americans can’t do better?
– We can contribute in areas where we are the ones ahead of the field and world leading, and that is actually several areas. One example is Professor Stig Pedersen-Bjergaard at The School of Pharmacy av uiO.
– He has developed a membrane technology that is world leading, says Lundanes.
Stig Pedersen-Bjergaards artificial liquid membranes can be tailor made to specifically only let through the pharmaceuticals, proteins and enzymes that tell about the state of an illness. In the future the membranes will probably be applied to blood and biological samples as well.
Additionally, Professor Lundanes herself is in charge of a group of scientists that are among the world’s best in conducting chemical analysis with the use of Nano chromatography columns and mass spectrometer; a technique used to differentiate different sized molecules from each other.
– Our columns are in principle long and very thin glass pipes, with an inner cross section down below 10 micrometers. We buy the pipes and add a thin coating on the inside.
– The point is that a diagnostic test often will contain a number of different compounds, such as proteins and metabolites of different sizes. Different molecules will move with different speed through the column because they interact differently with the coating on the inside. Consequently, the different compounds will separate from each other during the transport through the column. Then we can use the mass spectrometer to identify the different compounds, explains Lundanes.
To detect a sugar cube in a large lake
However, before the scientists can transport unknown molecules through a column they have usually done something to the blood or tissue test that is under analysis.
Most samples need to go through a process called sample preparation which is all about extracting the compounds that are interesting.
– We are working on changing the current methods of sample preparation and we also have some groups that look for new ways to do this. Today we are actually able to detect the sugar from a sugar cube dissolved in a small lake like Sognsvann in Oslo. We are working on bettering our methods; we want to be able to detect the sugar cube dissolved in a larger lake like Maridalsvannet next, says Lundanes.
Sognsvann located north of Oslo city Centre has a surface of 0.4 square km, while Maridalsvannet located east of the city Centre is 10 times as big.
Professor Lundanes emphasizes that Diatech is not searching for brand new indicators connected to different diseases, but rather develop new methods of detecting makers/indicators that are already known.
Decreasing the danger of misdiagnosis
At many hospitals they use techniques that misinterpret the compounds marking a disease or illness. Consequently, you can be labeled ill without being sick, or reported healthy when actually ill.
Both of these outcomes have serious consequences. Professor Leon Reubsaet and Associate Professor Trine Grønhaug Halvorsen at the School of Pharmacy have worked for years developing analytical methods to avoid misdiagnosis.
Together with researchers from Norwegian Radium Hospital they have worked with disease markers for small cell lung cancer. An especially aggressive form of cancer and good treatment is dependent on an early and correct diagnosis.
Since the markers reporting this disease occurs at levels of very low concentration in the blood stream, and since the symptoms of the disease are difficult to interpret, it together sums up a very challenging situation.
By combining todays measuring techniques with state of the art protein analysis using liquid chromatography connected to the mass spectrometer, scientists are today able to measure the disease markers as good as the traditional techniques. However, the new method provides fewer misdiagnoses and you are left with a lot more information concerning the structure.
– As of yet we don’t know if this extra information is useful, but we hope that it will have significant importance in developing diagnoses and provide insight about the illness. The method is an example on what we aim to achieve with Diatech, comments Elsa Lundanes.
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Translated from Norwegian by Espen Haakstad
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