Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new technique for detecting the presence of cancer cells in the urine of patients very early in the disease’s development, boosting the odds of survival.
Using nanotechnology — a field of science focused on the tiniest of particles — MIT researchers have found a way to amplify specific proteins secreted by tumor cells so that they can be “easily detected” in a patient’s urine.
Currently, the quantity of such cancer biomarkers is so low that detecting them is difficult, if not impossible. But the new technique, which involves the use of nanoparticles that interact with cancer proteins to produce thousands of biomarkers, could make detection much easier.SPECIAL: This Small Group of Doctors are Quietly Curing Cancer — Read More.
The new biomarker amplification system could also be used to monitor disease progression and track how tumors respond to treatment, said Sangeeta Bhatia, who helped lead the research, detailed in a paper published in Nature Biotechnology.
"There's a desperate search for biomarkers, for early detection or disease prognosis, or looking at how the body responds to therapy," said Bhatia, a member of MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. She added that the search has been complicated because genetic studies have revealed that many cancers, such as breast cancer, are actually groups of several diseases with different genetic signatures.
The MIT team, working with researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, noted cancer cells produce many proteins not found in healthy cells, but they are so diluted in the bloodstream that they are hard to identify. A recent study by Stanford University researchers found, for instance, that an ovarian tumor would not be detected until eight to 10 years after it formed, using even the best existing biomarkers for the disease.
"The cell is making biomarkers, but it has limited production capacity," Bhatia said. "That's when we had this 'aha' moment: What if you could deliver something that could amplify that signal?"
Bhatia's lab developed nanoparticles that interact with enzymes produced by cancer cells, causing them to clump at tumor sites and be excreted in urine, where they can be detected by chemical analysis.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.SPECIAL: This Small Group of Doctors are Quietly Curing Cancer — Read More.