Use of such precision diagnostics offer ‘early detection, localization, and the opportunity to monitor response to therapy,’ say the MIT scientists
Oncologists and medical laboratory scientists know that most clinical laboratory tests currently used to diagnose cancer are either based on medical imaging technologies—such as CT scans and mammography—or on molecular diagnostics that detect cancer molecules in the body’s urine or blood.
Now, in a study being conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researchers have developed diagnostic nanoparticles that can not only detect cancer cells in bodily fluids but also image the cancer’s location. This is the latest example of how scientists are combining technologies in new ways in their efforts to develop more sensitive diagnostic tests that clinical laboratories and other providers can use to detect cancer and other health conditions.
The MIT researchers published their study in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature, titled, “Microenvironment-triggered Multimodal Precision Diagnostics.”
Precision diagnostics such as molecular, imaging, and analytics technologies are key tools in the pursuit of precision medicine.
“Therapeutic outcomes in oncology may be aided by precision diagnostics that offer early detection, localization, and the opportunity to monitor response to therapy,” the authors wrote, adding, “Through tailored target specificities, this modular platform has the capacity to be engineered as a pan-cancer test that may guide treatment decisions for numerous tumor type.”
Development of Multimodal Diagnostics
The MIT scientists are developing a “multimodal” diagnostic that uses molecular screening combined with imaging techniques to locate where a cancer began in the body and any metastases that are present.
“In principle, this diagnostic could be used to detect cancer anywhere in the body, including tumors that have metastasized from their original locations,” an MIT new release noted.
“This is a really broad sensor intended to respond to both primary tumors and their metastases,” said biological engineer Sangeeta Bhatia, MD, PhD (above), in the news release. Bhatia is the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and senior author of the study.
“It can trigger a urinary signal and also allow us to visualize where the tumors are,” she added. Bhatia previously worked on the development of cancer diagnostics that can produce synthetic biomarkers which are detectable in urine samples.
Precision Diagnostic Assists Assessment of Response to Cancer Therapy
For their research, the scientists added a radioactive tracer known as copper-64 to the nanoparticles. This enabled the particles to be used for positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. The particles were coated with a peptide that induced them to accumulate at tumor sites and insert themselves into cell membranes, producing a strong imaging signal for tumor detection.
The researchers tested their diagnostic nanoparticles in mouse models of metastatic colon cancer where tumor cells had traversed to the liver or the lungs. After treating the cancer cells with a chemotherapy regimen, the team successfully used both urine and imaging to determine how the tumors were responding to the treatment.
Bhatia is hopeful that this type of diagnostic could be utilized in assessing how patients are responding to treatment therapies and the monitoring of tumor recurrence or metastasis, especially for colon cancer.
What is unique about the approach used by Bhatia’s team is that one application of the copper-64 tracer can be used in vivo, in combination with imaging technology. The other application of the copper-64 tracer is in vitro in a urine specimen that can be tested by clinical laboratories.
“Those patients could be monitored with the urinary version of the test every six months, for instance. If the urine test is positive, they could follow up with a radioactive version of the same agent for an imaging study that could indicate where the disease had spread,” Bhatia said in the news release. “We also believe the regulatory path may be accelerated with both modes of testing leveraging a single formulation.”
Precision Medicine Cancer Screening Using Nano Technologies
Bhatia hopes that the nanoparticle technology may be used as a screening tool in the future to detect any type of cancer.
Her previous research with nanoparticle technology determined that a simple urine test could diagnose bacterial pneumonia and indicate if antibiotics could successfully treat that illness, the news release noted.
Nanoparticle-based technology might be adapted in the future to be part of a screening assay that determines if cancer cells are present in a patient. In such a scenario, clinical laboratories would be performing tests on urine samples while imaging techniques are simultaneously being used to diagnose and monitor cancers.
Surgical pathologists may also want to monitor the progress of this research, as it has the potential to be an effective tool for monitoring cancer patients following surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.