MIT Researchers Using New Technology that Could Make Cancer Detection Much Easier

Female researcher in a lab coat and holding her glasses

A newly discovered biomarker amplification system, in its infancy stage of development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), could become a major breakthrough for early detection of cancers like mesothelioma.

Researchers at MIT have begun developing nanoparticles that can amplify specific proteins in cancer cells which previously went undetected, allowing the disease and it progression to be followed with a simple urine test.

Biomarker detection – a key to uncovering cancer – has been especially difficult in the past, and the subject of considerable research throughout the scientific world.

“There is a desperate search for biomarkers, for early detection or disease prognosis, or looking at how the body responds to therapy,” said Sangeeta Bhatia, lead researcher and professor of Health Sciences and Technology at MIT. She also is part of MIT’s Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

The synthetically produced nanoparticles can interact with the cancer proteins and produce thousands of biomarkers that can be easily detected in a patient’s urine.

Early Diagnosis is Critical

There currently are no reliable, non-invasive screening tests for many cancers, including mesothelioma. Scientists and physicians mostly agree that early detection is the best way to fight cancers because it provides a much wider scope of treatment options.

Mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos, often is not diagnosed until it has progressed beyond a manageable level, and the prognosis is often grim. The early symptoms often mirror less-serious illnesses, and an accurate diagnosis can take several months.

There was considerable optimism in the mesothelioma community last year over the discovery of a new protein biomarker called fibulin-3 that could reliably predict the presence of mesothelioma cancer cells. Fibulin-3 can be detected from a blood sample or from pleural fluid in patients. Those findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The amplification system from MIT, if it comes to fruition, would make it easy to screen anyone in a high-risk occupation where asbestos exposure is common. Only a fraction of those exposed to asbestos actually develop mesothelioma, which is diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually.

Cancer cells normally produce certain proteins that aren’t found in healthy cells, but often are so diluted in the bloodstream that they are difficult to see. According to the story in MIT News, researchers at Stanford University found that even with current up-to-date technology and the best existing biomarkers for ovarian cancer, tumors still are very difficult to detect.

Amplification of Biomarkers Is Key

“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?”

Researchers at MIT have tested their nanoparticles successfully in detecting the early stages of colorectal cancer in laboratory mice. They are exploring the ability to measure tumor response with chemotherapy.

They also have used them to monitor progression of liver fibrosis. Patients with liver fibrosis usually are monitored with an invasive biopsy. The nanoparticles in mice, though, have allowed a much simpler monitoring process, which is especially encouraging.

To make the reading of the biomarkers as exact as possible, the nanoparticles are constructed in such a way that will allow researchers to identify specifically the different types of cancer tumors; which could prove useful for mesothelioma.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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