The cancer-diagnosing pill

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Diagnosing cancer is a painful and a difficult process for medical professionals. Though biomarkers of cancers have helped a long way in diagnosing cancers, each tumor creates its own markers which are often produced in very little quantities making it hard to use them for diagnostic procedures.

Scientists from Stanford have resolved this issue by creating a pill which might need as simple as a blood test to diagnose cancer. This method if successful would be the first ever non-invasive diagnosis test available to detect cancers.

DNA minicircles in the blood of mice caused cancer cells to emit a substance that could be detected from a blood sample. Jim Strommer  Pic credit:
DNA minicircles in the blood of mice caused cancer cells to emit a substance that could be detected from a blood sample.
Jim Strommer
Pic credit:

Researchers have managed to create DNA minicircles which are tiny rings of DNA that makes the tumors release cancer biomarkers. So, when you consume a pill containing these DNA minicircles, it will trigger only the cancerous cells to release a specific protein which could be detected by a simple finger-prick blood test, two days later.

The lead author Dr. Sanjiv Gambhir and his team designed a system which tried to trick tumor cells into producing a biomarker which would undoubtedly signify cancer. So they made use of a biomarker protein called secreted embryonic alkaline phosphatase (SEAP) which is naturally produced in human embryos as they form and develop, but is not present in adults. The tricky part was to make the mice’s cancer cells to produce SEAP into the bloodstream.

They utilized a DNA minicircle, which consists of an artificial, single-stranded DNA ring encoding, a single gene for SEAP. They placed a promoter or a ‘switch’ called “survivin promoter” ahead of the gene, which when activated makes SEAP proteins. This survivin promoter has been known to be activated in a broad range of cancers, including breast, lung, ovarian and other major tumor types.

The ‘survivin promoter’ normally regulates a gene called survivin, that is “on” only in the cancer cells. So, in theory, the SEAP gene on the DNA minicircles would be produced only in cancer cells

This method was tested on mice exposed to human melanoma cells which revealed that, in mice with tumors these DNA minicircles produced SEAP which could be detected using a simple blood test whereas no SEAP was produced in the healthy mice.

This method though limited to animal studies and intravenous injections at the moment, researchers assure that it won’t be long before it gets transformed to a version as simple as a pill which could be used on humans for cancer detection.

Read more here: Stanford Press Release

The original publication can be accessed here.

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