We know that early detection often gives us the best chance to beat many different types of cancer, but current methods are expensive and invasive. For this reason, we usually only submit ourselves to tests when we feel there’s something wrong, by which time it could already be too late.
So what if there was some way that we could do inexpensive and non-invasive tests for an array of different cancers on a regular basis? It sounds too good to be true, but a new biotechnology start-up called Miroculus is in the process of developing a device that can quickly, easily and cheaply screen you for dozens of cancers, and all it needs is a small sample of your blood.
Miroculus’s founders, which include microbiologists and data scientists from around the world, are designing the test to be so easy to use, anyone will be able to administer it. This means it could be distributed to clinics around the world, including in developing countries, and staff could immediately start administering the test regardless of their level of medical training.
The $500 device, called Miriam, was announced to the public last week at the TEDGlobal conference in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. According to Issie Lapowsky at Wired, TED curator Chris Anderson called it “one of the most thrilling demos in TED history”.
The device works by having a patient’s blood sample pipetted into a specially designed 96-well plate. Each of these wells contain a secret concoction of biodetecting molecules that shine green when they detect specific types of microRNAs that are known to be associated with cancer. MicroRNAs are being used more and more in medicine as powerful biomarkers for human disease. These small molecules perform crucial gene regulation activities in our bodies, and tend to show up where several metabolic, infectious, and neurological diseases are present.
The 96-well plate is then inserted into the Miriam device, which will perform further experiments on the samples over a 60-minute period. Miriam will then collate the results and transmit them to the medical staff's smartphone, indicating if there is any cancer present, and if so, which particular kind.
All data is sent (anonymously) to the cloud, where it can be analysed in bulk to give researchers a better understanding of why different types of cancers appear when and where they do, and helping them to pick up on trends as they develop. "If we want to better understand and decode diseases we must stop treating them as acute isolated episodes and consider and measure everything that affects our health on a permanent basis,” the team says on the Microculus website.
The team has already tested the device on mice, and it was able to successfully detect those with liver cancer. They’re now working on refining it so that only microRNA that are associated with cancer will show up in the test results. Lapowsky at Wired reports:
"The challenge with microRNA, [one of the team, Muneesh Tewari,] says, is that it doesn’t only show up in the case of cancer. Something as simple as taking aspirin or having a respiratory infection could affect which microRNA gets expressed in blood. To guarantee accuracy, Miroculus’s technology must know not only which results mean cancer, but also how other health conditions, medications, and environmental factors can alter or inhibit those results."
The team is also working on making the process as simple to perform as possible, so it can be used by staff in many different types of clinics. “The main challenge is to make it robust enough so it can be done by an untrained person anywhere in the world in not-so-optimal laboratory conditions,” one of the founders, molecular biologist Fay Christodoulou, added.
Here's more about how it works: