New technology may enable earlier cancer diagnosis

Finding ways to diagnose cancer earlier could greatly improve the chances of survival for many patients. One way to do this is to look for specific proteins secreted by cancer cells, which circulate in the bloodstream. However, the quantity of these biomarkers is so low that detecting them has proven difficult.

A new technology developed at MIT may help to make biomarker detection much easier. The researchers, led by Sangeeta Bhatia, have developed nanoparticles that can home to a tumour and interact with cancer proteins to produce thousands of biomarkers, which can then be easily detected in the patient's urine.

This biomarker amplification system could also be used to monitor disease progression and track how tumours respond to treatment, says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

''There's a desperate search for biomarkers, for early detection or disease prognosis, or looking at how the body responds to therapy,'' says Bhatia, who is also a member of MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

She adds that the search has been complicated because genomic 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, described the new technology in a paper appearing in Nature Biotechnology on 16 December. Lead author of the paper is Gabriel Kwong, a post-doc in MIT's Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and the Koch Institute.