Alexandre Chícharo is one of 40 researchers involved in the InveNNta project. With an integrated master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering, he is currently working towards his PhD in medical diagnostics devices at the Instituto Superior Técnico and at INL

Specifically, Alexandre works on an adaptation an integrated flow cytometer for the detection of circulating tumor cells (CTC) in blood, using magnetoresistive technology, previously developed by INESC MN-Lisbon. In practice, “we attach a label to a cell that is then detected by the sensor”. “The labels used are magnetic nanoparticles, which bind to the cell via a specific antibody. The challenge is to find the best detection strategy in order to amplify a magnetic signal detected by the sensor and integrate all the elements in compact architecture.

The blood samples he is working with are provided by the Hospital of Santiago de Compostela.

Magnetic nanoparticles (or magnetic beads) already functionalized with specific antibodies are embedded in the blood sample. The strategy employed aims at labeling the surface of cancer cells with magnetic nanoparticles to adhere to the surface of cancer cells.

The INL researcher Ana Vila is also part of the InveNNta project team. The Galician researcher has a PhD in Pharmacy and within the project, she is engaged in the fabrication of “beads”, which are polymeric structures embedded with magnetic nanoparticles. The surface of the “bead” is then functionalized for binding with an antibody to the cancer cell.

“The functionalization process consists in joining the protein to the bead protein, enabling access to the antibody, which in turn causes the particles to cover the cancer cells” explains Ana Vila. It is not a straightforward process. It is essential to prevent the beads from adhering to a healthy cell. Moreover, the magnetic moment has to have the intensity required to cause a signal that can be received by the sensor. So when the diseased cells, covered with nanoparticles circulate through the micro channel, they are detected 1 by 1 by the magnetic sensor”, adds Alexandre.

In a more advanced phase of the project, the young researcher will join the team of the Clinical analysis laboratory at Santiago de Compostela Hospital, where he will develop his research further, using patient’s blood samples, to test the signal issued and the device’s reliability. It is a process that requires highly developed electronics and extremely sensitive sensors.

Alexandre does not hide his enthusiasm to be part of such an experienced and multidisciplinary team: “It’s a fantastic group with experts from different areas. “The group makes us strong” he says and “the facilities are very well prepared” he adds, referring to the modern scientific infrastructure of the INL, where he can rely on state-of-the-art instrumentation.

The ultimate goal is to create a device that will reveal the results of medical tests very rapidly, minimizing manual sample manipulation in a Point-of-Care architecture. “The examination is done, avoiding travel and long waiting periods for the patient.”, underlines Alexandre.

He also noted that the new detection platform will make an automatic detection and analysis of cells without the need of specialized personnel or manual operation.

As an outcome of the InveNNta project, the partners expect to create a device that is faster and cheaper than those currently on the market. The challenge is also to develop a device that is scalable to industrial production. It also noted that the new detection platform will make an automatic analysis of cells without human interference.