Is This a Better Way to Find Ovarian Cancer?

A new cancer screening technology aims to use nanoparticles as a 'synthetic biomarker' to detect ovarian tumors in a simple urinalysis test.

Kristopher Sturgis

This high-magnification micrograph of an ovarian clear cell carcinoma shows, focally, the characteristic clear cells with prominent nucleoli and the typical hyaline globules.

 

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to battling ovarian cancer is late detection, a reality that often leads to low survival rates. However, a new approach to ovarian cancer detection could help doctors identify tumors earlier, through the use of a new technology designed to detect tumors composed of nodules smaller than two millimeters in diameter.

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A recent MIT study produced a new test that can detect tumor proteins in urine, allowing doctors to diagnose ovarian cancer up to five months earlier than any existing blood tests. The technology uses nanoparticles that act as a synthetic biomarker that can interact with tumor proteins to release fragments that can be detected in a patient's urine. The researchers said the new test could possibly provide a much clearer indication of a tumor than any natural biomarkers that are used to indicate the presence of a tumor in a patient's bloodstream.

Recent attempts to enhance ovarian cancer diagnostics have fallen relatively flat, leaving doctors with no other choice but to continue to rely on blood biomarkers produced by ovarian tumors. The problem with this approach is that most of these markers don't accumulate in high enough concentrations for detection until the tumors are roughly one centimeter in diameter, or about eight to ten years after they form.

Last year, the FDA warned against many ovarian cancer screening tests, citing that few current ovarian cancer tests are sensitive enough to produce reliable results.

It was this reality that led MIT researchers to explore the idea of synthetic biomarkers as a means to measure the activity of protein-cutting enzymes that are made by tumors to help cancer grow and spread. These enzymes, known as endoproteases, help recruit blood vessels so the cancer can invade the surrounding tissue.

To detect this enzyme, researchers designed nanoparticles coated with peptides that the enzyme will split, leaving fragments behind that filter out through the kidney and into the patient's urine. The researchers said the new technology even provides the ability to detect the enzyme in a variety of different ways including a simple, low-cost paper-based test.

Recently the group began testing the technology in mice, where they discovered they could not only detect tumors in the liver, but in the colon as well -- a discovery that could validate the approach for virtually any tumor presence in the body.

As the group moves forward with the research, they hope to refine the approach to help develop a new diagnostic tool that could detect ovarian cancer earlier and more efficiently than any current method on the market. The group also plans to explore using the same approach to screen for other types of cancer, including prostate and colon cancer. The technology could even be used to distinguish aggressive tumors from those that tend to grow and spread more slowly.

While the group remains optimistic about all of the different ways the technology could improve tumor detection, the largest impact remains its ability to detect the presence of tumors at an earlier stage. Recent studies have shown that when ovarian cancer is detected early, five-year survival rates are greater than 90% -- a number that this technology might just be able to improve upon. 

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed.

 

[Image credit: MIT]

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