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Cancer rates in developing nations have climbed sharply in recent years, and now account for 70 percent 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,
The technology, developed by
"When we invented this new class of synthetic biomarker, we used a highly specialized instrument to do the analysis," says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "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 specialized equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone."
Bhatia, who is also a member of
Amplifying cancer signals
In 2012, Bhatia and colleagues introduced the concept of a synthetic biomarker technology (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/noninvasive-diagnostics-for-cancer-1216.html) to amplify signals from tumor proteins that would be hard to detect on their own. These proteins, known as matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), help cancer cells escape their original locations by cutting through proteins of the extracellular matrix, which normally holds cells in place.
In the original version of the technology, these peptides were detected using an instrument called a mass spectrometer, which analyzes the molecular makeup of a sample. However, these instruments are not readily available in the developing world, so the researchers adapted the particles so they could be analyzed on paper, using an approach known as a lateral flow assay -- the same technology used in pregnancy tests.
To create the test strips, the researchers first coated nitrocellulose paper with antibodies that can capture the peptides. Once the peptides are captured, they flow along the strip and are exposed to several invisible test lines made of other antibodies specific to different tags attached to the peptides. If one of these lines becomes visible, it means the target peptide is present in the sample. The technology can also easily be modified to detect multiple types of peptides released by different types or stages of disease.
In tests in mice, the researchers were able to accurately identify colon tumors, as well as blood clots. Bhatia says these tests represent the first step toward a diagnostic device that could someday be useful in human patients.
"This is a new idea -- to create an excreted biomarker instead of relying on what the body gives you," she says. "To prove this approach is really going to be a useful diagnostic, the next step is to test it in patient populations."
To help make that happen, the research team recently won a grant from
Bhatia says the technology would likely first be applied to high-risk populations, such as people who have had cancer previously, or had a family member with the disease. Eventually, she would like to see it used for early detection throughout developing nations.
Such technology might also prove useful in
With the current version of the technology, patients would first receive an injection of the nanoparticles, then urinate onto the paper test strip. To make the process more convenient, the researchers are now working on a nanoparticle formulation that could be implanted under the skin for longer-term monitoring.
The team is also working to identify signatures of MMPs that could be exploited as biomarkers for other types of cancer, as well as for tumors that have metastasized.
The research was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a Mazumdar-Shaw International Oncology Fellowship, the
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