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A paper test for detecting cancer

06 Mar 2014  | Anne Trafton

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Cancer rates in developing nations have climbed sharply in recent years and now account for 70 per cent of cancer mortality worldwide. Early detection has been proven to improve outcomes, but screening approaches such as mammograms and colonoscopy, used in the developed world, are too costly to be implemented in settings with little medical infrastructure.

To address this gap, MIT engineers have developed a simple, cheap, paper test that could improve diagnosis rates and help people get treated earlier. The diagnostic, which works much like a pregnancy test, could reveal within minutes, based on a urine sample, whether a person has cancer. This approach has helped detect infectious diseases, and the new technology allows noncommunicable diseases to be detected using the same strategy.

The technology, developed by MIT professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Sangeeta Bhatia, relies on nanoparticles that interact with tumour proteins called proteases, each of which can trigger release of hundreds of biomarkers that are then easily detectable in a patient's urine.

"For the developing world, we thought it would be exciting to adapt it instead to a paper test that could be performed on unprocessed samples in a rural setting, without the need for any specialised equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone," says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Bhatia, who is also a member of MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, is the senior author of a paper describing the particles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper's lead authors are graduate student Andrew Warren, postdoc Gabriel Kwong and former postdoc David Wood.

Amplifying cancer signals

In 2012, Bhatia and colleagues introduced the concept of a synthetic biomarker technology to amplify signals from tumour proteins that would be hard to detect on their own. These proteins, known as matrix metalloproteinase (MMPs), help cancer cells escape their original locations by cutting through proteins of the extracellular matrix, which normally holds cells in place.

The MIT nanoparticles are coated with peptides (short protein fragments) targeted by different MMPs. These particles congregate at tumour sites, where MMPs cleave hundreds of peptides, which accumulate in the kidneys and are excreted in the urine.


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