New research from MIT engineers and Imperial and published in Nature Nanotechnology could change the way to detect cancer. The study highlights the development of a non-invasive nanotechnology capable of detecting cancer through a urine test. So far the technology has only been proven in mice for colon cancer, but the researchers say the technology holds potential for the future of cancer detection.
The research was led by Imperial's Professor Molly Stevens and MIT professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Sangeeta Bhatia. Together, the researchers developed a system where nanosensors are injected into mice, which are then broken up by protease enzymes that are released by cancer tumors. The broken-up nanosensors are then small enough to come out in the mouse’s urine. The researchers then are able to conduct a urine test that detects the presence of nanosensors by changing the urine to blue.
In simpler terms, if the urine turns blue, that means there is a tumor present. The researchers conducted the experiment on 28 mice, 14 of which were healthy and 14 of which had colon tumors. The test showed splendid results, demonstrating a change in blue color for those mice with tumors within only a half hour after the nanosensors were injected. Furthermore, there were no side-effects seen in the mice from the injections during the four-week follow-up.
The importance of this detection tool lies principally in its rapid answer and inexpensive cost. As Professor Stevens, of Imperial's Departments of Materials and Bioengineering, commented "By taking advantage of a chemical reaction that produces a color change, this test can be administered without the need for expensive and hard-to-use lab instruments. The simple readout could potentially be captured by a smartphone picture and transmitted to remote caregivers to connect patients to treatment."
The researchers say that although there is more work to be done before their technology can be tested in humans, they have hope that it will be helpful not only for cancer detection, but also other diseases.
"Proteases play functional roles in a number of diseases such as cancer, infectious diseases, inflammation, and thrombosis," said co-first author Ava Soleimany, of Harvard and MIT. "By designing versions of our sensors that can be cut by different proteases, we could apply this colour-based test to detect a diversity of conditions."