The Use of Raman Spectroscopy in Cancer Diagnostics

Feb 01, 2014

Both Raman spectroscopy and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) are proving to be invaluable tools in the field of biomedical research and clinical diagnostics. The robust, compact, fit-for-purpose Raman spectrometer designs are appropriate for use in surgical procedures to help surgeons assess tumors and allow rapid decisions to be made. Raman systems are also being developed for molecular diagnostic testing to detect and measure human cancer biomarkers. Based on the SERS technique, this approach potentially could change the way bioassays are performed to improve both the sensitivity and reliability of testing. The two applications highlighted in this review, together with other examples of the use of Raman spectrometry in biomedical research areas such as the identification of bacterial infections, are clearly going to make the technique an important part of the medical toolbox, as we continually strive to improve diagnostic techniques and bring a better health care system to patients.

In recent years, Raman spectroscopy has gained widespread acceptance in applications that span from the rapid identification of unknown components to detailed characterization of materials and biological samples. The technique's breadth of application is too wide to reference here, but examples include quality control (QC) testing and verification of high purity chemicals and raw materials in the pharmaceuticals and food industries (1–3), investigation of counterfeit drugs (4), classification of polymers and plastics (5), characterization of tumors, and the detection of molecular biomarkers in disease diagnostics (6–8) and theranostics (9).

One of the most exciting application areas is in the biomedical sciences. The major reason behind this surge of interest is that Raman spectroscopy is an ideal technique for molecular fingerprinting and is sensitive to the chemical changes associated with disease. Furthermore, components in the tissue matrix, principally those associated with water and bodily fluids, give a weak Raman response, thereby improving sensitivity for those changes associated with a diseased state (10). The growing body of knowledge in our understanding of the science of disease diagnostics and improvements in the technology has led to the development of fit-for-purpose Raman systems designed for use in surgical theaters and doctors' surgeries, without the need for sending samples to the pathology laboratory (8).

Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) is a more sensitive version of Raman spectroscopy, relying on the principle that Raman scattering is enhanced by several orders of magnitude when the sample is deposited onto a roughened metallic surface. The benefit of SERS for these types of applications is that it provides well-defined, distinct spectral information, enabling characterization of various states of a disease to be detected at much lower levels. Some of the many applications of Raman and SERS for biomedical monitoring include
  • Examination of biopsy samples
  • In vitro diagnostics
  • Cytology investigations at the cellular level
  • Bioassay measurements
  • Histopathology using microscopy
  • Direct investigation of cancerous tissues
  • Surgical targets and treatment monitoring
  • Deep tissue studies
  • Drug efficacy studies

The basics of Raman spectroscopy are well covered elsewhere in the literature (11). However, before we present some typical examples of both Raman and SERS applications in the field of cancer diagnostics, let's take a closer look at the fundamental principles and advantages of SERS.

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