Early detection tech and the battle to change the story on ovarian cancer

Early detection tech and the battle to change the story on ovarian cancer

Driven by a promise to help women win the battle against ovarian cancer, Dr Cesar Sanchez Huertas is developing new medical technologies to detect the deadly disease in its earliest stages.

Each day in Australia, five women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and three will die from the disease.

It’s the most lethal gynaecological cancer, with over 70% of women already at an advanced stage by the time the cancer is detected.

Currently there is no early detection test but RMIT researchers are looking to change that, with the help of tiny but powerful biosensing devices, the size of a fingernail. 

Nanobiotechnologist Dr Cesar Sanchez Huertas is part of the multi-disciplinary team recently awarded $1 million in funding to develop the technology and work towards a routine screening test for ovarian cancer.

As we mark Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Huertas explains the cutting-edge science behind the biosensors, his passion for translating research discoveries into real-world impact and shares the family experience that inspires and drives his work. 

What makes you so passionate about helping improve ovarian cancer diagnosis and survival rates?

I learned about the struggles of ovarian cancer first-hand five years ago.

My aunt Rosi, my mum’s older sister, was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer and had to undergo surgery to remove the tumour mass from her ovaries. She also went through a long and hard chemotherapy process to try to eliminate any traces of this cancer, which unfortunately had already spread to different parts of her body.

My aunt was a very strong woman and she didn’t stop fighting and kept smiling during this tough process. Unfortunately, the disease won three years ago and sadly we had to say goodbye to her.

By that time, I had already completed my PhD in ultrasensitive nanophotonic biosensor technologies for early cancer diagnosis and had moved to Australia, to continue creating this cutting-edge technology and make it more accessible to the public.

So, I made a promise to look for opportunities that could detect this cancer earlier to help women win this battle and make a real difference to the survival rates for ovarian cancer.

Dr Cesar Sanchez Huertas Nanobiotechnologist Dr Cesar Sanchez Huertas.

Tell us about your journey moving from Spain in 2018 to your current role at RMIT?

It was my passion for technology translation what made me move from Barcelona to Melbourne. Back then, I was feeling a bit stuck and every project I was involved in ended up in a drawer with no real-world use. I soon realised the technology I was researching was not ready for customer use, since it was very hard to use.

Then I met Arnan Mitchell and he offered me a position in his lab at RMIT’s Integrated Photonics and Applications Centre (InPAC), where I could further my research on photonic biosensors.

In addition, I could work in collaboration with industry partner Lumos Diagnostics – recently announced as the company that will develop Victorian-made Rapid Antigen Tests – who gave me a lot of insights into research commercialisation.

From there I met Distinguished Professor Magdalena Plebanski and discovered she and her team had a strong focus on changing the extremely low survival outcomes from ovarian cancer patients.

Their project, co-led by postdoctoral researcher Dr April Kartikasari, aimed to identify new diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers in the blood.

I explained my vision about how the technology we were creating at InPAC could help detect these biomarkers in a very fast and accurate way – all with a handheld device at a GP clinic – and our collaboration was born.

Research team: Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell, Distinguished Professor Magdalena Plebanksi, Dr Cesar Sanchez Huertas and Dr April Kartikasari. Research team: Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell, Distinguished Professor Magdalena Plebanksi, Dr Cesar Sanchez Huertas and Dr April Kartikasari.

The team was recently awarded a $1 million NHMRC Ideas Grant – how will this help your research?

Currently, the only reliable diagnostic method requires very invasive biopsies during surgery. If the results is positive, this is followed by intense chemotherapy with no time for recovery.

The type of biomarkers discovered by Magdalena and her team are very powerful. They consist of chemical alterations in DNA that are indicators of ovarian cancer.

These DNA markers occur in early stages of the cancer development and appear a long time before a tumour can be detected with a conventional test or scan.

Not only can they be detected at very early stages of the cancer development but they can also be diagnosed with less invasive methods – through a simple blood test.

But the analysis procedure to detect the biomarkers is very specialised and difficult to carry out in a standard lab, because you need highly sensitive devices. This makes it hard to translate the discoveries clinically.

This grant will give us the resources to miniaturise a whole laboratory’s worth of equipment onto a chip the size of your fingernail.

Our aim is for this technology to accurately detect ovarian cancer-related markers from just a tiny pin-prick of blood, in minutes.

Dr Cesar Sanchez Huertas holding the two devices the project brings together - a microfluidic chip (right) and photonic biosensor (left). The project combines a microfluidic chip (left) and photonic biosensor (right) to develop the new cancer-detecting technology.

One of the technologies your team is focusing on is photonic biosensors. Can you explain what these are and how they might help diagnose and treat ovarian cancer? 

Photonics is a research field that uses the science of light for practical applications such as high-speed data communications, advanced sensing and imaging.

We can create photonics biosensors, which are microstructures that - when they interact with light - can detect molecules found at extremely low concentrations in any given sample.

At InPAC, we integrate photonics biosensors with microfluidic systems (little devices that can filter out specific molecules like DNA and proteins) to create cheaper, portable diagnostics tools.

These miniaturised devices have the potential to reflect the internal state of our body, including any viral infection, allergy or disease, such as cancer, by the analysis of a blood drop, all thanks to their autonomy and high sensitivity.

They also have the potential to automatically perform any procedure normally carried out in a laboratory in just a single chip. These characteristics offer the possibility of providing rapid and user-friendly diagnosis in non-laboratory and resource-constrained settings, where lack of sophisticated laboratory infrastructures limits the real time on-site diagnosis.

With this technology we will be able to use the novel biomarkers discovered by Magdalena and team to detect and diagnose ovarian cancer at the earliest stages, when the cancer is most curable.


The RMIT research team on the NHMRC Ideas project includes Dr Cesar Sanchez Huertas, Dr April Kartikasari and InPAC Director, Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell.  The project is led by Distinguished Professor Magdalena Plebanski, Director of RMIT’s Biomedical and Health Innovation Enabling Capability Platform, Head of the Translational Immunology and Nanotechnology Theme and the Cancer, Ageing, and Vaccines Laboratory at the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences.


Story: Jasmijn Van Houten, Gosia Kaszubska

Masthead image: Lakshmi Chakra Photography

21 February 2022


21 February 2022


  • Research
  • Science and technology

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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.