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Prof Parry Guilford has received a New Zealand Health Research Council Explorer Grant to investigate an "indwelling device": technology that can be inserted into the body and left there for a period of time to "capture significantly more circulating tumour DNA".
Circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) was a class of marker with "exceptional specificity" that could be applied to most cancer types.
"It works well for a late-stage disease, but lacks the sensitivity to find cancer at an early stage, when cure by surgery is still possible.
"We propose to develop an indwelling device that will capture greater than 36-fold more ctDNA over a 30-minute period enabling this technology to routinely detect early-stage cancer," he said.
Prof Guilford was "very excited" to have received receive the grant, which is given over two years.
The project was a collaboration between the university's geneticists and University of Auckland-based nanotechology specialists, and chemists from Victoria University.
"It's a combined effort, bringing together the [different] skill sets," he said.
By 2021, he expected the team would have a prototype device.
He did not know of any other scientists in the world who were working on similar projects - however, if there were, they could learn from one another, Prof Guilford said.
He believed the invention would probably be most helpful for pancreatic and ovarian cancer.
"We think it will allow the majority of tumours to be diagnosed while they are still small enough to be cured by surgery."
Explorer grants support research ideas that have a good chance of making a "revolutionary change to how New Zealanders' health is managed".
University researchers received three of the 15 grants awarded nationally.
Dr Sean Coffey, of the Dunedin School of Medicine, and Dr Xiaolin Cui, of the university's Christchurch campus have also secured Explorer Grants, each worth $150,000.
Dr Coffey's research has the potential to transform current methods of assessing heart disease, and involves generating images from cardiac ultrasound by training artificial intelligence models to produce MRI-like images.
If successful, the method could transform our methods of assessing heart disease.
Dr Cui's research will investigate using a new generation of stem cells to help treat cardiovascular disease and its complications, including heart attacks.