Early diagnosis of cancer makes a significant difference to a patient’s chances of a successful recovery, which is why low-cost, non-invasive screening tests are so important.
A new diagnostic tool developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US needs little more than a urine sample, making it possible some types of cancer to be tested at home, similar to a pregnancy test. There is no need for a trip to the doctor or hospital and no need for expensive scanning procedures or tedious blood tests.
Although the test may be simple, the technology behind it is quite complex and relies on the presence of enzymes that are specific to the occurrence of different types of cancer.
The researchers developed a new type of protein-coated nanoparticles tagged with an array of DNA sequences. When cancer-related enzymes encounter a nanoparticle in the blood, they cleave off a protein specific to that enzyme. Excreted from the body through urine, the sequences associated with the protein can be read as a barcode identifying the presence of cancer.
Tested in mice by injection, the same nanoparticles could eventually be developed to be taken orally, via an inhaler or as a topical treatment such as a cream, according to the researchers.
The different DNA barcodes on the nanoparticles not only have the potential to identify whether or not a tumor is present, they could also differentiate between tumor types and notice whether the tumor has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body). All of this is vital information for developing and targeting treatments.
The nanoparticle sensors were shown to detect five different enzymes produced by tumors. Up to 46 different DNA barcodes could potentially be expressed in a single sample once the technology is scaled up further.
“Our goal here is to build signatures of the disease and see if we can use these barcode panels not only to read a disease, but also to classify a disease or differentiate between different types of cancer,” says biomedical engineer Liangliang Hao, formerly of MIT, but now works at Boston University.
While cancer biomarkers are often difficult to detect, the synthetic nanoparticles developed in this study can be used to amplify these signals and report on cancers and how they progress. This was done through the gene editing technology CRISPR, which has had a huge impact on scientific research.
“Patients can achieve the capacity to self-monitor disease progression to enable early detection and access to effective treatment.” the researchers write in their published paper.
“Through customized applications, these programmable sensors can monitor other infectious and non-infectious diseases and guide treatment decisions to improve disease management in resource-limited settings.”
All of this still needs to be tested in humans, of course, so a fully working test that you can use at home is still a long way off – but the researchers are confident that the technique will translate and can be further refined in the future .
Improvements in medical science and technology mean that this kind of innovation is now being reported regularly, whether it’s using the help of AI or monitoring developments in treatment. The future looks promising.
“We’re trying to innovate in the context of bringing the technology to low- and medium-resource settings,” says MIT biological engineer Sangeeta Bhatia.
“Putting these diagnostics on paper is part of our goal to democratize diagnostics and create low-cost technologies that can give you a quick answer at the point of care.”
The study was published in Natural nanotechnologies.