Diagnosing cancer early makes a significant difference to the chances of a patient's successful recovery, which is why cheap, non-invasive screening tests are so important.

A new diagnostic tool development by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US needs little more than a sample of urine, making it possible for some types of cancer to be screened at home much like a pregnancy test. No need for a trip to the doctor or to hospital, and no need for expensive scanning procedures or bothersome blood tests.

While the test might be simple, the technology behind it is rather sophisticated, relying on the presence of enzymes that are specific to the emergence of different cancers.

Researchers developed a new type of nanoparticle with a coating of proteins tagged with an array of DNA sequences. When cancer-related enzymes encounter a nanoparticle in the blood, they snip off a protein specific to that enzyme. Excreted out of the body through the urine, the sequences connected to the protein can then be read like a barcode, identifying the presence of cancer.

Tested on mice via an injection, the same nanoparticles could eventually be developed to be taken orally, through an inhaler, or as a local treatment such as a cream, according to the researchers.

Not only do the nanoparticle's various DNA barcodes have the potential to identify whether or not a tumor is present, they could also be able to distinguish between types of tumors, and spot if a tumor has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body). All of this is vital information for developing and targeting treatments.

The nanoparticle sensors were shown to detect five different enzymes produced by tumors. Up to 46 different DNA barcodes can potentially be expressed in a single sample, once the technology has been scaled up further.

Cancer test
The test would work in a similar way to a pregnancy test. (Hao et al., Nature Nanotechnology, 2023)

"Our goal here is to build up disease signatures and to see whether we can use these barcoded panels not only to read out a disease but also to classify a disease or distinguish different cancer types," says biomedical engineer Liangliang Hao, formerly from MIT but now working at Boston University.

While the biomarkers of cancer are often difficult to detect, the synthetic nanoparticles developed in this study can be used to amplify these signals and report back on cancer types and how they're progressing. This was done through the CRISPR gene editing technology that has had a huge impact on scientific research.

"Patients could achieve the capacity to self-monitor disease progression to enable early detection and access to effective treatment," the researchers write in their published paper.

"Through tailored applications, these programmable sensors may monitor other infectious and non-communicable diseases and guide treatment decisions to improve disease management in resource-limited settings."

All of this still needs to be tested in human beings of course, so a fully working test you can use at home is still some way off – but the researchers are confident that the technique will translate and can be further refined in the future.

Improvements in medical science and technology mean that these sorts of innovations are now being reported on a regular basis, whether it's harnessing the help of AI, or monitoring developments in treatment. The future looks promising.

"We are trying to innovate in a context of making technology available to low and middle-resource settings," says MIT biological engineer Sangeeta Bhatia.

"Putting this diagnostic on paper is part of our goal of democratizing diagnostics and creating inexpensive technologies that can give you a fast answer at the point of care."

The research has been published in Nature Nanotechnology.