Protein detection in blood with single-molecule imaging

Sci Adv. 2021 Aug 11;7(33):eabg6522. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abg6522. Print 2021 Aug.


The ability to characterize individual biomarker protein molecules in patient blood samples could enable diagnosis of diseases at an earlier stage, when treatment is typically more effective. Single-molecule imaging offers a promising approach to accomplish this goal. However, thus far, single-molecule imaging methods have not been translated into the clinical setting. The detection limit of these methods has been confined to the picomolar (10-12 M) range, several orders of magnitude higher than the circulating concentrations of biomarker proteins present in many diseases. Here, we describe single-molecule augmented capture (SMAC), a single-molecule imaging technique to quantify and characterize individual protein molecules of interest down to the subfemtomolar (<10-15 M) range. We demonstrate SMAC in a variety of applications with human blood samples, including the analysis of disease-associated secreted proteins, membrane proteins, and rare intracellular proteins. SMAC opens the door to the application of single-molecule imaging in noninvasive disease profiling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Humans
  • Nanotechnology
  • Proteins* / analysis
  • Single Molecule Imaging* / methods


  • Biomarkers
  • Proteins