MIT's nanoparticles make cancer biomarkers more visible

MIT's nanoparticle binds to cancer cells (rendered in green), producing detectable peptides that could lead to speedy diagnosis--courtesy of MIT

Tumors create proteins not found in healthy cells, and ID'ing them can lead to an early diagnosis. Problem is, they're often manufactured at such a low rate that it's hard to detect them. However, researchers at MIT have found a nano solution that can ramp up biomarker production and make cancer diagnostics a little easier.

In research funded by NIH, MIT's Sangeeta Bhatia and her team developed nanoparticles that seek out cancer cells, using peptides to bind to the tumor's protease enzymes. Once the particles have latched on, the proteases cleave hundreds of peptides off the nanoparticles, leaving them to pool in the kidneys and, eventually, turn up in urine, allowing doctors to easily detect them.

"The cell is making biomarkers, but it has limited production capacity," Bhatia told MIT News. "That's when we had this 'aha' moment: What if you could deliver something that could amplify that signal?"

For the study, published in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers tried the method out on mice with colorectal cancer, finding that the nanoparticles accurately revealed the early formulation of tumors. Next, the team plans to study whether the nanoparticles can help measure a tumor's response to treatment and pick up on metastasis in its early stages.

If the results are repeatable, doctors could eventually have a new weapon in ferreting out hard-to-spot biomarkers for diseases, no longer having to rely on their natural production.

- read MIT's story
- check out the abstract in Nature Biotechnology

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