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UTEP Faculty Member Contributes to Advances in Cancer Detection

Last Updated on March 16, 2021 at 11:00 AM

Originally published March 16, 2021

By UC Staff

UTEP Communications

Research being conducted at The University of Texas at El Paso by Wen-Yee Lee, Ph.D., is helping pave the way for advances in early detection methods for prostate cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer death among men according to the American Cancer Society.

Wen-Yee Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Texas at El Paso
Wen-Yee Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Texas at El Paso, is lending her expertise to research that is helping pave the way for advances in early detection methods for prostate cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer death among men, according to the American Cancer Society. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

The associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UTEP was invited to join a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Johns Hopkins University, Medical Detection Dogs in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom, the Cambridge Polymer Group, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, Imagination Engines, and Harvard University, to develop a miniaturized detector that can mimic a canine nose and brain, with 200 times greater sensitivity to detect chemical and microbial content of an air sample to help detect prostate cancer. The overall goal is to make the device accessible through cellphones in the future.

Lee joined the multi-institutional team and lent her expertise in the area of chemical analysis of urine to advance the study to meet the need for alternative detection methods. The keen sense of smell of trained medical dogs is often used to help detect several diseases and illnesses but due to issues of training, access and availability, an alternative reliable method for detection is key.

“Advancing personalized medicine through inexpensive and accurate point-of-care technologies represents an exciting frontier in patient care,” said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., Dean of UTEP’s College of Science. “Dr Wen-Yee Lee and colleagues’ recent work is very exciting because it validates that it is possible to use such an approach, even for a highly complex diseases like prostate cancer, that have few reliable disease markers. The development of such technologies, coupled with artificial intelligence for analysis, should lead to early and better cancer diagnosis, treatment monitoring and ultimately patient outcomes.”

The findings of the multi-institutional team were published in the journal PLOS ONE. The study involved the use of professionally trained dogs and the miniaturized detection tool to look for specific biomarkers in 50 urine samples that included both prostate cancer positive specimens and a control group.

Using artificial intelligence, the researchers compared patterns of the two groups of samples that could help the artificial sensors detect the disease. They found that the detection system was highly comparable to the rate of detection by the canines with both scoring a rate of accuracy of 70% or greater.

“With this study we have a very good start, and we will continuously try to get more samples to validate the results,” Lee said. “I hope in the future we are able to validate this study and get more data to prove that we are capable of using a handheld sensor to detect cancer. It can be moved to a point-of-care and we can reach out to the community and people who have a hard time accessing cancer testing.”

Lee’s ongoing research aims to establish methods for early detection of cancer for wide populations of people who have traditionally had issues with access to health resources. She along with an interdisciplinary team of UTEP and medical researchers from other institutions, made important discoveries through a collaborative study published in Clinical Genitourinary Cancer in 2019, that addressed the important need to establish simple, effective and sensitive methods to detect prostate cancer.

Through that study, researchers were able to validate a highly effective, non-evasive detection model with 90% accuracy using urine samples which are easily accessible at a low cost.

“Early cancer detection is the key to cure cancer. If a person can get their cancer detected early on the chance of survival is much higher,” Lee said. Using prostate cancer as a starting point, I really think that using urine to detect cancer can go beyond prostate cancer to include other types of cancers. Through this proof of concept, we can apply urine samples for early detection of diseases to locations that don't have very advanced medical devices to really help global society.”