Liquid biopsy for determining the presence of cancer and the underlying tissue of origin is crucial to overcome the limitations of existing tissue biopsy and imaging-based techniques by capturing critical information from the dynamic tumor heterogeneity. A newly emerging liquid biopsy with extracellular vesicles (EVs) is gaining momentum, but its clinical relevance is in question due to the biological and technical challenges posed by existing technologies. The biological barriers of existing technologies include the inability to generate fundamental details of molecular structure, chemical composition as well as functional variations in EVs by gathering simultaneous information on multiple intra-EV molecules, unavailability of holistic qualitative analysis, in addition to the inability to identify tissue of origin. Technological barriers include reliance on EV isolation with a few labeled biomarkers, resulting in the inability to generate comprehensive information on the disease. A more favorable approach would be to generate holistic information on the disease without the use of labels. Such a marker-free diagnosis is impossible with the existing liquid biopsy due to the unavailability clinically validated cancer stem cells (CSC)-specific markers and dependence of existing technologies on EV isolation, undermining the clinical relevance of EV-based liquid biopsy.
Researchers at Ryerson University hypothesized that tracking the signals of CSCs in peripheral blood with CSC EVs would provide a reliable solution for accurate cancer diagnosis, as CSC are the originators of tumor contributing to tumor heterogeneity. The researchers report nanoengineered 3D sensors of extremely small nano-scaled probes self-functionalized for SERS, enabling integrative molecular and functional profiling of otherwise undetectable CSC EVs. A substantially enhanced SERS and ultralow limit of detection (10 EVs per 10 μL) were achieved. This was attributed to the efficient probe-EV interaction due to the 3D networks of nanoprobes, ensuring simultaneous detection of multiple EV signals. We experimentally demonstrate the crucial role of CSC EVs in cancer diagnosis. The researchers then completed a pilot validation of this modality for cancer detection as well as for identification of the tissue of origin. An artificial neural network distinguished cancer from noncancer with 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity for three hard to detect cancers (breast, lung, and colorectal cancer). Binary classification to distinguish one tissue of origin against all other achieved 100% accuracy, while simultaneous identification of all three tissues of origin with multiclass classification achieved up to 79% accuracy. This noninvasive tool may complement existing cancer diagnostics, treatment monitoring as well as longitudinal disease monitoring by validation with a large cohort of clinical samples.