Scientists Using Drug Delivery & Bacteria to Detect Cancer

Scientists Using Drug Delivery & Bacteria to Detect Cancer

In recent years, significant progress has been made in the treatment of cancer. As scientists learn more about the various types of cancer, they develop new and innovative ways to treat and prevent the disease. A series of new drug treatments are currently being tested, including new methods of drug delivery and targeted cancer therapy.

From tiny particles that can roam your body looking for tumours to bacteria that can be programmed to detect cancer, the following blog will explore some of the cancer-specific innovations that have been making headlines in recent months.

Cancer Nanodetector

What if we had a cancer detector small enough to circulate our body, find a tumour and send a signal to the outside world? This may sound like science fiction, but MIT professor and cancer researcher Sangeeta Bhatia says nanotechnology allows them to do just that.

Her lab has developed a cancer nanodectector that can travel through the body and listen for tumour invasion. A tumour must create chemicals called enzymes in order to break out of the tissue it is born in. Bhatia and her team have designed the nanodetector to be activated by the presence of these enzymes. Once it is activated, it will send a signal to the outside world.

How exactly does it do that? The nano detector releases a signal that is small enough to be filtered out of the kidney and put into the urine. This signal is a molecule designed by the engineers, completely synthetic and compatible with the lab’s tool of choice. Bhatia says this signal can be detected in a number of ways. For example, if they were using a mass spectrometer, then they would create a molecule with a unique mass. Or they could use a molecule that can be trapped on paper, like a pregnancy test.

Bhatia says that one day this technology could provide an alternative to going to an expensive screening facility. A patient could simply get a shot, wait an hour and then do a urine test on a paper strip. There wouldn’t even need to be a medical professional in the room. With the rise of mobile healthcare, you could communicate with a doctor using your smartphone.

Cageing the Tumour

Laura Indolfi is another entrepreneur with a novel approach to fighting pancreatic cancer. Only eight percent of patients with pancreatic cancer will survive beyond five years. Compare this to breast cancer, which has a survival rate close to 90 percent. The pancreas has very few blood vessels, which makes it incredibly difficult for chemotherapy to reach the organ.

The problem with drug delivery for pancreatic cancer is that the drug must travel through the whole-body before it can treat a specific organ. Indolfi wants to specifically target the organ, using a similar method to MIT’s molecular superweapon we covered in a past blog.

Indolfi’s team embed the drug into a device that is small and flexible enough to fit into a catheter. This allows the doctor to implant the device on top of the tumour with minimally invasive surgery. This acts as a cage, which physically prevents the tumour from entering other organs. The devices are also biodegradable.

Indolfi says delivering the drug locally is far more effective than the current whole-body treatment. In preclinical studies, the localized approach has been proven to be 12 times more effective in its treatment. She believes this new delivery device could open the door to finding innovative solutions to every possible problem in pancreatic cancer patients and beyond.

Programming Bacteria

One of the more unusual ideas for treatment comes from a team of MIT and UC San Diego researchers, which uses genetically engineered bacteria to detect cancer. According to Tal Danino, it may someday be used to treat cancer as well.

Bacteria can naturally grow inside of tumours. The team tested probiotic bacteria in mice and found that these probiotics would selectively grow inside of liver tumours. Danino says they realized they could highlight the presence of these tumours by using bacteria to produce a signal. This signal would be detectable in the urine, similar to the nanodetector discussed above.

The team programmed the probiotics to make a molecule that would change the colour of the urine to indicate the presence of cancer. Their tests have proven that the technology could specifically detect liver cancer.

The team has also been working to programme them to not only detect cancer, but also to treat it by producing therapeutic molecules from within the tumor environment to shrink the existing tumour.


In her TED talk, Sangeeta Bhatia said that over two-thirds of deaths due to cancer are fully preventable. But even with the best tools and technologies, some tumours cannot be detected until they’ve started growing. The common theme running through the three ideas discussed in this blog is - early detection.

Early detection leads to earlier treatments, and more lives being saved. Not only beneficial in their own right, the research and development being conducted by these teams will open the door for new innovative solutions to treat and prevent cancer in the future.

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Published by Research and Markets