Clemson Research Takes Medical Test to Next Level

Greenville Online, May 24, 2015

Clemson University researchers say they have developed a new way to test urine that could help diagnose diseases in the future.

Urine is the easiest of the body fluids to sample, said Ken Marcus, professor of chemistry. Unlike blood tests, no needles are required.

But because there is so much salt in urine, it’s difficult to isolate the proteins, or biomarkers, that signal disease, he said.

So Marcus and his students invented an enabling technology that lets scientists find the proteins, and at lower concentrations than has been possible before.

“The lower the concentration, then perhaps the earlier in the (disease) process you’ll detect that something’s going on,” he said.

“And once you’ve identified a biomarker, you may be able to identify a specific test,” he added. “But you need to be able to see things first before you know if they mean anything.”

Tests that already measure body functions well are unlikely to be replaced by the new method, he said. But the technology could enable physicians to check for other conditions.

For example, he said, it may be a better way of testing for kidney cancer than a biopsy, which can only provide results for the portion of tissue that was removed, not the entire organ.

“In general, clinicians are looking for other ways of assessing the body. With blood, things have to be really out of whack to see something,” he said. “If I can see something in urine rather than blood, and more sensitively, I’ve helped a clinician.”

The technology uses uniquely shaped polymer fibers that allow fluids to pass through easily but trap the proteins, Marcus said. The proteins are then tested using existing methods, he said.

While typical urine tests use polymer beads to extract proteins, Marcus and his team say their development will cost less and produce faster results using less urine, which could also make it easier to test urine from babies.

The next step, Marcus said, is to collaborate with clinicians to determine whether the technology can enable the diagnosis of conditions such as heart disease, prostate cancer or a transplanted kidney that is being rejected.

It could take five years before something is ready for market, he said.

Anand Gramopadhye, Dean of the College of Engineering and Science, said the work Marcus and his students have done has strong potential for real-world impact.

And a reviewer of the research recently published in the journal Proteomics-Clinical Applications said the technology may have more profound implications than realized “because urine is more important than most biomarker researchers realized.”