MIT uses nanotech to make cancer easier to detect

Diagnosing cancer earlier makes it easier to treat and beat

MIT researchers are using nanotechnology to help doctors detect cancer in their patients sooner, increasing their odds of beating the disease.

To diagnose cancer, doctors look for specific proteins secreted by cancer cells. The problem with these biomarkers is that they're difficult to detect, giving the cancer more time to grow and advance before it's discovered and treated.

A group of MIT scientists, though, has developed a technology using nanoparticles that can interact with the cancer proteins to create thousands more biomarkers. The nanoparticles basically act as amplifiers.

"There's a desperate search for biomarkers, for early detection or disease prognosis, or looking at how the body responds to therapy," Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, a member of MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, said in a statement.

Amplifying the biomarkers is critically important to cancer diagnosis because the proteins produced by cancer cells often are so diluted in the bloodstream that they're nearly impossible to detect.

Stanford University researchers released a report a year ago noting that cancerous ovarian tumors can grow for 10 years before currently available blood tests can detect them. "The cell is making biomarkers, but it has limited production capacity," Bhatia said. "That's when we had this 'A-ha!' moment: What if you could deliver something that could amplify that signal?"

The MIT research echoes work being done at Princeton University to make cancer more easily detectable. Princeton scientists reported this summer that they have had a breakthrough in nanotechnology and medicine that could make tests to detect diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer's, three million times more sensitive.

And late in 2008, researchers at Stanford University used nanotechnology in a blood scanner to detect early-stage cancers.

"The earlier you can detect a cancer, the better chance you have to kill it," Shan Wang, a Stanford professor of materials science and electrical engineering, said at the time. "This could be especially helpful for lung cancer, ovarian cancer and pancreatic cancer, because those cancers are hidden in the body."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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