Microelectronic engineering postgraduate student Conlathan Ibau was recently awarded a RM27,295 research grant for his proposal to develop a novel sensor to spot prostate cancer in the early stage. Conlathan was the only one of the three awardees that do not have a background in medicine or biomedical sciences.

He was represented by Associate Professor Ir. Dr Mohd Khairuddin Md Arshad at the ceremony, who is also his PhD supervisor. “We are from the engineering background but we are doing research from the medical perspective," said Dr Khairuddin.

The proposal to detect prostate cancer early

During his pre-recorded presentation at the award ceremony, Conlathan mentioned that his research team planned to develop a novel multiplex system for the detection of early-stage prostate cancer without an unacceptably high rate of false positive or false negative. (1)

Prostate cancer is currently most commonly detected via a digital rectal exam (DRE), which sees the doctor inserting a gloved, lubricated finger into the patient's rectum to feel the prostate for lumps or abnormal mass. Alternatively, the patient can opt for the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test. However, there are some controversies surrounding the use of these screening tools, particularly DRE which may cause discomfort to men.

"[A] digital rectal examination is an invasive approach that causes discomfort and embarrassment among men," stated Conlathan. There is some evidence that patients may experience heighten pain sensation and embarrassment during DRE especially when these procedures were conducted by physicians of the opposite sex.

“Meanwhile, the PSA test lacks specificity which may lead to over-treatment of the patients,” he added.

The intersection between medicine and engineering

Conlathan said that his project will initially focus on using the multiplex platform to detect PSA, but he maintained an optimism to further expand the detection to other biomarkers such as the prostate-specific membrane antigen, interleukin-6 and glycoforms of PSA.

"We always try to achieve a greater technology [advancement] in disease diagnostic, and prostate cancer is not to be left out. As mentioned earlier, we want to develop a sensing platform that [is] easier, more user-friendly and portable [with] which a normal man can operate and gain an accurate result," he said.

Working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Bath, United Kingdom, Conlathan showcased a prior multiplex sensing platform that was developed with Dr Pedra Estrela.

"[The] multiple-sensing platform is made up of [four] electrodes that provide high-performance sensing to various target markers. These individual sensing electrodes enable [a] different type of prostate cancer markers to be tested simultaneously with the integration of microfluidic system"

A culturally sensitive testing method

Speaking about the significance of this project, Conlathan expressed that there is a necessity to develop a screening method that is sensitive towards men's need. There is a long-established understanding that men are typically less likely to seek medical attention compared to the female gender. The requirement to have their prostate check via the insertion of a finger through the rectum is, undoubtedly, embarrassing if not outright off-putting.

“Our approach will limit the discomfort from the current technique," said Conlathan. He further stressed that the novel method will greatly benefit men who may feel embarrassed from the prostate examination, especially Asian men who are generally more reserved. MIMS

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1. Chu K. (1999). An introduction to sensitivity, specificity, predictive values and likelihood ratios. Emerg Med Australas.;11(3):175–81.
2. Sothilingam S., Sundram M., Malek R., & Sahabuddin R.M. (2010). Prostate cancer screening perspective, Malaysia. Urol Oncol Semin Orig Investig.;28(6):670–2.
3. Tong S.F., Low W.Y., & Ng C.J. (2011) Profile of men’s health in Malaysia: problems and challenges. Asian J Androl.;13(4):526–33.
4. American Cancer Society. (2018). Tests for Prostate Cancer. Retrieved on 2018 May 10 from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/prostate-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/how-diagnosed.html