Scientists have used all kinds of brilliant and unexpected methods to detect cancer, such as a mantis-shrimp-inspired polarizing light scanner, nanodiamonds, and the sniffing power of bees. Of course, science has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to a disease that changes as it spreads to new organs and adapts to—and often bests—the chemotherapy and radiation treatments designed to stop it. Now, thanks to MIT professor Sangeeta Bhatia, there’s another hot new weapon in cancer detection: yogurt.
We’ve covered some of Bhatia’s work before on GFR, and her contributions to science garnered a prestigious $500,000 prize. Lately, she’s been turning her attention to colorectal cancer, which according to the American Cancer Society afflicts 5% of Americans. Early detection is tough with this variety of the disease—typical approaches include MRIs and colonoscopies. Despite Katie Couric’s televised attempt at making a colonoscopy seem not that bad, everyone knows that the procedure sucks, including the guzzling of nausea-inducing quantities of barium the night before. And even when people undergo colonoscopies at the prescribed intervals, they’re not foolproof. (Unfortunately, I know that from experience. )So an cheap, painless, and accurate way to screen for colorectal cancer is just what we need, and just what Bhatia has delivered.
The test involves eating yogurt—but not just any yogurt. This special blend has peptide-coated nanoparticles that zero in on tumors in colon, intestine, or rectum. When the nanoparticles come into contact with the protein enzymes generated by cancer cells, they break down into a form that the kidney processes and that is then detected in urine. Essentially, you eat the yogurt and pee out the results.
Usually, one would need to pee in a cup—this is particularly fun for women—and get a urinalysis for something like this. But Bhatia’s determined to keep the test simple from start to finish, so she invented a pregnancy-test type paper to read the results. If someone pees on the paper and the lines show up, it means the nanoparticles did find cancer biomarkers in the system.
In addition to being easy and painless, the new test is also affordable. It doesn’t require medical equipment or people to administer scans or read x-rays. Bhatia wants the test to be used in places that don’t have first world medical facilities and personnel, particularly because this is where cancer kills the most people.
It’s unclear how long it will be until this test is adopted for use. Right now, lab tests on mice have indicated success—the test has accurately indicated colorectal cancer and liver fibrosis on the rodent subjects. Hopefully it’ll be ready before I’m scheduled to have my first colonoscopy.