The potentially deadly condition of ovarian cancer affects women over the age of 50, but the symptoms – such as bloating – are not always obvious.

Now, new research by Professor Joseph Reiner and his colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States has shown promise for a urine-based test for ovarian cancer.

Previous studies have shown that there are thousands of small molecules, called peptides, in the urine of people with ovarian cancer.

While it is possible to detect those molecules using certain well-established techniques, those techniques aren’t straightforward or cost effective.

Prof Reiner and his team sought a new approach to more easily detect those peptides. He turned to nanopore sensing, which has the potential to simultaneously detect multiple peptides.

The basic idea of nanopore sensing involves passing molecules through a tiny pore, or nanopore, and measuring the changes in electrical current or other properties as the molecules pass through. To harness the nanopore technology to detect various peptides, Prof Reiner used gold nanoparticles that can partially block the pore.

He explained that peptides – like those in the urine of people with ovarian cancer – will then “stick to the gold particle and basically dance around and show us a unique current signature.”

He says the method is capable of simultaneously identifying multiple peptides, and in the study the team identified and analysed 13 peptides, including those derived from LRG-1, a biomarker found in the urine of ovarian cancer patients.

Of those 13 peptides, Prof Reiner said: “We now know what those signatures look like, and how they might be able to be used for this detection scheme. It’s like a fingerprint that basically tells us what the peptide is.”

He added: “Clinical data shows a 50 to 75 per cent improvement in five-year survival when cancers are detected at their earliest stages. This is true across numerous cancer types.”

The team’s ultimate goal is to develop a test that, combined with other information – such as blood tests, ultrasound scans, and family history – could improve early-stage ovarian cancer detection accuracy in the future. Prof Reiner presented the findings at the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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