You stand a better chance of winning a war when you have good intelligence
that keeps you informed from behind enemy lines. This is also true of the
fight against cancer. Here, an invaluable tool would be an implantable biosensor that
sends up-to-date information about the current state of a tumor and how it is responding
The sensor fits into the tip of a biopsy needle.
Image credit: C. C. Vassiliou et al./MIT
This is the aim of a team from MIT in Cambridge, MA, that has developed such a device
and discusses it in the journal Lab on a Chip.
To monitor a cancer’s response to treatment, doctors currently rely on the results of
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other scanning technologies, plus tissue analysis of
But these methods can only offer a snapshot that is already history by the time the
results are analyzed. Also, in the case of biopsies, there is a limit to how many times
you can invade the body with a risky procedure to take a sample.
Now researchers from MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research
have developed an implantable device that promises to provide readings about the state of
a tumor as it happens. Such a device would give doctors a chance to change therapy
dosing, and potentially reduce unnecessary side effects.
One of the developers, Michael Cima, a professor in engineering and senior author of
the study, says:
“We wanted to make a device that would give us a chemical signal about what’s
happening in the tumor. Rather than waiting months to see if the tumor is shrinking, you
could get an early read to see if you’re moving in the right direction.”
Biosensor monitors pH and dissolved oxygen
The biosensor works by monitoring two biomarkers: pH (a measure of acidity) and
dissolved oxygen. These are valuable indicators of how well the tumor is responding to
treatment. When chemotherapy begins to take effect, the tumor tissue becomes more
“Many times, you can see the response chemically before you see a tumor actually
shrink,” Prof. Cima says. In fact, he explains, some therapies can even trigger an immune
response that causes inflammation, which in turn can make it look like the tumor is
growing when in fact the therapy is taking effect.
By measuring dissolved oxygen, the biosensor helps doctors determine the
appropriate dose for treatment, since tumors thrive in low-oxygen (hypoxic) conditions.
The tiny biosensor is so small it fits into the tip of a biopsy needle. It is made of
a biocompatible plastic shell enclosing 10 ml of chemical contrast agents typically used
in MRI scans, and some electronics for sending readings to an external device.
The power to the device relies on the external reader. There is a small metal coil in
the device and a larger one in the reader. An electric current magnetizes the coil in the
reader which, by a process called mutual inductance, sets up a voltage in the sensor’s
coil when it is near it.
To obtain a reading, the reader sends out a series of pulses that causes the sensor to
“ring back” with signals that are interpreted by a computer connected to the reader. The
computer turns the signals from the sensor into readings that reveal changes in the
levels of the biomarkers.
Tests showed the biosensor is fast, accurate and reliable
To test the device, the team implanted it in rats. The tests showed the sensors
could send quick, accurate, reliable signals about pH and oxygen concentration in
The team now want to see how well the sensor measures changes in pH over longer
periods. “I want to push these probes so we can use them to monitor tumor response,”
Prof. Cima says. “We did a little bit of that in these experiments, but we need to make
that really robust.”
He foresees the sensors being used to monitor patients’ health over many
“There are thousands of people alive today, because they have implantable electronics,
like pacemakers and defibrillators,” Prof. Cima notes. “We’re making these sensors out of
materials that are in these kinds of long-term implants, and given that they’re so small,
I don’t think there will be a problem.”
While cancer care is the main focus of their work, the researchers also see other uses
for the biosensor and would like to work with researchers in other fields, such as
environmental science, as Prof. Cima explains:
“For example, you could use these to measure dissolved oxygen or pH from a
lot of different sites all over a pond or a lake. I’m excited about using these sensors
to bring big data to environmental monitoring.”
In October 2014, Medical News Today learned how another group of scientists
is working on a “lab on a chip” that promises to detect
lung cancer much earlier than is currently possible using only a small drop of the patient’s blood. This would
be a great improvement on the present method of lung cancer diagnosis requiring an
invasive biopsy that is only effective after tumors are bigger than 3 cm and may already
have started spreading.
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD
Copyright: Medical News Today
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