Cancer research: A changed pH value indicates cancer formation

How pH probes help with cancer treatment

In a recent study, an international research team showed that tumor formation accelerates, that cancer cells are more aggressive and that resistance to therapy develops more quickly when the cancer cells are surrounded by an acidic environment. Special pH probes could help treat cancer.

Together with colleagues from China, Japan and Russia, researchers at Imperial College London developed a new pH biosensor that quickly reacts to the smallest changes in pH. The probe is said to help both diagnose and predict cancer. The research results were recently presented in the renowned journal "Nature Communications".

Why does a low pH indicate cancer?

Previous studies have shown that cancer cells gain their energy by breaking down glucose. This creates acidic residual products around the cancer cell that lower the pH in the surrounding tissue. The new probe detects such changes in the body in milliseconds and transmits the data to a computer, which outputs a kind of 3D map of the area under investigation, on which potential danger zones are drawn.

Probe closes the gap in cancer diagnosis

"It becomes clear that an acidic extracellular pH value plays an important role in the progression of cancer cells, invasiveness and resistance to therapy," explains Yuri Korchev from the study team. Despite the growing awareness that the pH value that directly surrounds a cell is important as an indicator of cell health, the techniques for measuring this value have so far been limited. The new probe is supposed to close this gap.

Small marvel of measurement technology

The researchers emphasize that the new pH probe is superior to all other measurement methods in terms of sensitivity, spatial resolution and the speed of reaction to changes in pH. The so-called nanopipette pH biosensor recognizes pH changes of less than 0.01 units in a response time of two milliseconds and can represent this change in a resolution of 50 nanometers.

New opportunities in cancer diagnosis and therapy

The team tested the device on living cancer cells. It shows that the sensor was able to reliably detect breast cancer cells due to the increase in the extracellular pH. In another test, the probe detected heterogeneities in aggressive melanoma cells. The probe data is displayed in real time on a dynamic 3D map. "This method could help in cancer diagnosis, prognosis and in assessing the acidic pH value in the course of targeted therapy," the researchers sum up. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Kanazawa University: Improved pH probes may help towards cancer treatments (accessed: December 6, 2019),
  • Yanjun Zhang, Yasufumi Takahashi, Sung Pil Hong, u.a .: High-resolution label-free 3D mapping of extracellular pH of single living cells, Nature Communications, 2019,

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