Detecting liver cancer could be as simple as collecting a patient’s teardrop and performing a two-minute test anywhere — if new technology developed by University of Utah researchers becomes widely available.

The test is still being perfected, but U. researchers say it could significantly widen access to early diagnosis of liver cancer, and potentially other diseases. And for doctors and patients in developing countries, the device’s low cost and portability could be transformative for health care.

“If we can develop a rapid test that performs at a high level of clinical accuracy, then we’ve got something that can have an impact on human lives,” said Marc Porter, leader of the research team and director of the U.‘s Nano Institute of Utah.

Costing about $3 apiece to manufacture, the domino-size cartridges are similar to at-home pregnancy tests. Blood, saliva, urine or even a teardrop from the patient is placed on absorbent paper infused with chemicals that react visibly with proteins specific to liver cancer.  

(Courtesy of the University of Utah) Marc Porter, director of the U.'s Nano Institute of Utah, and research associate Jennifer Granger have spent two years developing a fast and portable liver cancer test.

The chemical serum, made up of gold nanoparticles, tags the protein markers and produces a red dot, indicating the patient has the disease. Results are returned in about two minutes and the test can be administered anywhere, not just a doctor’s office or lab.

Traditional screening for liver cancer requires lab-based blood testing and ultrasounds, which can require travel and costs more, U. research associate Jennifer Granger said. Results typically take a couple of weeks, which is problematic for liver cancer patients, given that they don’t normally get tested until they show symptoms, usually in later stages of the disease.

The new screening tests for only one of the five major protein indicators for liver cancer, but Porter said the team is developing tests for the other four proteins.

The test is a variation on a project Porter developed for NASA about a decade ago, when he created a water purity test so astronauts on the International Space Station could detect contamination.

The latest iteration was developed with help of professors and researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute and the U. medical school — some of whom will travel to Mongolia in spring 2019 to train professionals there on using the test. The East Asian country has one of the highest instances of liver cancer in the world, Granger said, and the portable screening could allow for more early intervention. 

The U. team also hopes to lower the cost of making the test to about $2, Granger said, putting it even more in reach for patients in less-developed nations. 

With slight modifications, Granger said similar screening devices could be made for other diseases, such as tuberculosis or malaria, and to detect other substances. 

“The platforms are extendible,” she said. “You can look for proteins one day and potentially anthrax spores the next.”