Fish eyes open door for DIY cancer check

Researchers in Canterbury are using discarded fish eyes to help develop sensors that will detect health problems in humans.

They are aiming for cheap sensors people could buy at a pharmacy and use to check for the early stages of illnesses like cancer, allowing treatment before it got to dangerous levels.

The university was the only one in the world able to manufacture protein nano fibres on a large scale, and the work aimed to make New Zealand world leaders in bionanotechnology research.

"The study of biological structures already found in nature can lead us to alternative methods to develop biosensors or other analytical devices from green nano fibres which can be used to detect sugar levels for diabetics, lactose (for dairy-intolerant people) and downstream indicators of diseases such as cancer," Dr Luigi Sasso said.

Working at the university's biomolecular interaction centre, he uses methods developed at the university to remove protein from fish heads that would otherwise end up in the rubbish bin.

He produces tiny nano-thin protein structures that could be manipulated and used for research, and said the work was a step toward solving many health issues in society.

"My research is based mainly on utilising biological materials for technology," he said.

"In today's world, where us humans have abused and oppressed our natural environment for our purposes, I believe it is important to learn how to work together with the world we live in, especially when it comes to technological development.

"How great would it be if you could go down to the pharmacy, pick up a cheap and easy-to-use device to check your blood for early stages of cancer and then toss it in the recycling bin when you're done?

"It would allow people to be aware of their health issues way before they reach a dangerous level, meaning that, in the end, more lives would be saved."

The university said it had received more than $1 million to launch the project, which would be breaking new barriers looking at nano-fibres up to 10,000 times smaller than a strand of human hair.

World-leading bionanotechnology expert Professor Juliet Gerrard – one of the researchers working with Sasso – said the Canterbury University group was the only one in the world able to manufacture protein nano fibres on a large scale, which would be hugely helpful in diagnosing illnesses.

The work aimed to put New Zealand at the forefront of bionanotechnology research.