Nanopores could map small changes in DNA that signal big shifts in cancer

ECE News

Liz Ahlberg, Illinois News Bureau
4/18/2017 10:44:47 AM

Story Highlights

Detecting cancer early, just as changes are beginning in DNA, could enhance diagnosis and treatment as well as further our understanding of the disease. A new study led by ECE ILLINOIS Professor Jean-Pierre Leburton describes a method to detect, count and map tiny additions to DNA called methylations, which can be a warning sign of cancer with unprecedented resolution.

The method threads DNA strands through a tiny hole, called a nanopore, in an atomically thin sheet of material with an electrical current running through it. The study was published in the inaugural issue of the journal npj 2D Materials and Applications, a new journal from Nature Press.

Professor Jean-Pierre Leburton and graduate student Aditya Sarathy used advanced computer simulations to map DNA methylation. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Professor Jean-Pierre Leburton and graduate student Aditya Sarathy used advanced computer simulations to map DNA methylation. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

“One or a few methylations is not a big deal, but if there are many of them and they are packed close together, then it’s bad,” said Leburton. “DNA methylation is actually a starting process for cancer. So we want to detect how many of them there are and how close together they are. That can tell us at which stage the cancer is.”

Other attempts at using nanopores to detect methylation have been limited in resolution. Researchers begin by punching a tiny hole in a flat sheet of material only one atom or molecule thick. The pore is submerged in a salt solution and an electrical current is applied to drive the DNA molecule through the pore. Dips in the current alert researchers that a methyl group is passing through. However, when two or three are close together, the pore interprets it as one signal, Leburton said.

Leburton's research group at Illinois’ Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology tried a slightly different approach. They applied a current directly to the conductive sheet surrounding the pore. Working with Klaus Schulten, a professor of physics at Illinois, they used advanced computer simulations to test applying current to different flat materials, such as graphene and molybdenum disulfide, as methylated DNA was threaded through.

See a video of one simulation.

“Our simulations indicate that measuring the current through the membrane instead of just the solution around it is much more precise,” Leburton said. “If you have two methylations close together, even only 10 base pairs away, you continue to see two dips and no overlapping. We also can map where they are on the strand, so we can see how many there are and where they are.”

Leburton’s group is working with collaborators to improve DNA threading, to cut down on noise in the electrical signal and to perform experiments to verify their simulations. Phys.Org was among the news outlets that shared the new research.

Grants from Oxford Nanopore Technology, the Beckman Institute, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation supported this work.

The paper “Detection and mapping of DNA methylation with 2D material nanopores” is available online. doi:10.1038/s41699-017-0005-7

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