University researchers have used nanomaterials to develop a microchip they say has enough sensitivity to detect early stage cancer when it is most treatable.

Scientists at the University of Toronto reported today that the chip not only detects cancer but also can detect the type and severity of it. The chip, built with nanowires, is designed to sense trace amounts of cancer biomarkers, which are biologic molecules that indicate the presence or progression of a disease.

The university hailed the technology as the latest move in the advent of nanomedicine.

"Today, it takes a room filled with computers to evaluate a clinically relevant sample of cancer biomarkers and the results aren't quickly available," said Shana Kelley, a lead investigator on the project, in a statement.

"Our team was able to measure biomolecules on an electronic chip the size of your fingertip and analyse the sample within half an hour. The instrumentation required for this analysis can be contained within a unit the size of a BlackBerry."

David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto and a professor of medicine, called "this remarkable innovation an indication that the age of nanomedicine is dawning."

Researchers increasingly have been using nanotechnology in their fight against cancer.

Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine announced last month that they are creating "nanobees" to fight cancerous tumours. They are using nanoparticles to deliver bee venom called melittin through the body to kill cancerous tumor cells. In an experiment with mice, the nanobees targeted such tumors and effectively halted their growth, and in some cases even caused them to shrink.