New test based on urine samples may provide early diagnosis for cancer

It can also detect whether the tumor has spread.

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a sensor using nanoparticles that can detect cancer through a simple urine test. These sensors have the ability to detect various cancer proteins and can also determine the type of tumor and its response to treatment, according to a research published in the journal Nature. 

The nanoparticles are designed to release small DNA sequences in urine when they come into contact with a tumor. These DNA "barcodes" can reveal unique characteristics of an individual's tumor. The test is designed to be affordable and accessible, similar to at-home COVID-19 tests, using a paper strip.

The researchers conducted tests on mice and successfully detected the activity of five different enzymes found in tumors, demonstrating that their approach could distinguish at least 46 different DNA barcodes in a single sample using a microfluidic device for analysis, MIT specified in a release

The goal of the research is to make diagnostic technology available in low- and middle-resource settings.

By creating a paper-based diagnostic test, the researchers aim to democratize cancer diagnostics and provide fast and inexpensive answers at the point of care.

Previously, scientists developed synthetic biomarkers to diagnose cancer by detecting cancer biomarkers in blood samples. These biomarkers, which are naturally occurring, are difficult to find, especially in the early stages of cancer. Synthetic biomarkers can amplify small-scale changes in small tumors.

The new sensors are an improvement on previous nanoparticle designs. They detect the activity of enzymes called proteases, which help cancer cells move from their original location and settle in new sites. The nanoparticles are coated with peptides that are cleaved by different proteases. Once released into the bloodstream, these peptides can be concentrated and detected in a urine sample.

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To make the sensors more accessible, the researchers developed DNA barcodes that can be read using CRISPR technology instead of using mass spectrometers.

The urine sample can be analyzed using a paper strip that is activated by a CRISPR enzyme called Cas12a. When a specific DNA barcode is present, Cas12a amplifies the signal, producing a visible dark strip on the paper test.

Multiple DNA barcodes can be carried by the nanoparticles, each detecting different protease activities. This sort of sensing enhances sensitivity and specificity, enabling easier differentiation between tumor types. The tests on mice successfully distinguished between lung tumors and colorectal cancer tumors that had spread to the lungs using a panel of five DNA barcodes.

MIT researchers now intend to expand the number of barcodes in order to detect the whole specter of tumors.

Harvard professors contributed to the research, which was funded by grants from various organizations, including the US National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.