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21st June 2016

Tiny tech, big promise

The ‘miniaturisation’ revolution could make cancer tests faster, simpler and accessible to all.

Look around you. How many computers do you see? Are you reading this on a laptop or a tablet? Your kitchen may have a microwave and a programmable washing machine. Heating systems, security alarms, and even cars are equipped with computer chips.

Computers and electronics are everywhere, getting faster and smaller every day. The first general purpose computer was the size of a large house. Yet your phone has gotten smaller and slimmer despite adding internet access, mapsand a camera.

And that’s just electronics…

A whole new branch of science is taking miniaturisation to another level. Nanotechnology is the science of working with material in the range of 1 to 100 nanometres. For example, computer companies can now make transistors that are 22nm in size – more than 6 million of which could fit on the full stop at the end of this sentence.

But what does all of this mean for patients?

The future is small,” says Dr Sangeeta Bhatia, a physician and researcher. “As an engineer, I am inspired by this miniaturisation revolution in computers. As a physician I wonder whether we can use it to reduce the number of lives lost due to one of the fastest growing diseases on earth: cancer.”

Her ambitious plan is to use nanotechnology to save lives by detecting cancer early – preventing its development and dramatically improving outcomes for patients.

“Even with the best tools we have today, some tumours cannot be detected until 10 years after they begin to grow – when they are 50 million cancer cells strong. What if we could detect them sooner, when they could be removed?”

Today, one of the most frequently used methods to detect cancer is by having experienced pathologists study tissue samples using an expensive microscope.

But scientists have now shrunk this into a mini-lab that fits on the end of an optical fibre. Better still, it costs less than €15 and is fully mobile. “Instead of taking a sample from a patient, you can bring the microscope to the patient. Instead of using a specialist to assess it you can train the computer to do it,” says Dr Bhatia.

Think what this can do for people in rural communities in developing countries where access to healthcare is a major challenge. Mobile clinics can deliver on-the-spot diagnosis and treatment without the laboratory infrastructure that is lacking in many parts of the world.

Gold dust

Tumours wreak havoc by dividing and spreading in the body. To do this, they use a cocktail of enzymes to help them break through the body’s cells. Tiny tumour detectors can be made from gold or cadmium dust which can be injected into the body and change colour when they interact with tumour enzymes.

Getting this ‘molecular signal’ out of the body requires a combination of scientific ingenuity with a little help from the body’s own filtration system. The kidneys filter blood and put waste in the urine. By designing a tiny cancer detector of the right size, injecting it into the bloodstream where it is activated by tumour enzymes, and collecting it in a urine sample, doctors can tell whether early stage tumours are present.

This means that simple paper tests – similar to home pregnancy tests – can diagnose cancer.

“I dream that one day instead of going into an expensive screening facility for a colonoscopy, mammography or pap smear, you could get a shot, wait an hour and do a urine test on a paper strip,” says Dr Bhatia.

This could happen without the need for steady electricity or a medical professional in the room. If expert consultation is required, smartphones can connect doctors from anywhere in the world.

“I hope this means one day we can detect tumours in patients sooner than 10 years after they started growing… This would lead to earlier treatments and we could save more lives thanks to early detection.”

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