Diagnosing the Cancer of the Future

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/23524278869

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/23524278869

Society often speaks about cancer as a collection of conditions that cannot be strung together perfectly without needing more knowledge than what seemingly exists. Movies often display extreme cases of health conditions in patients combined with extremely futuristic diagnostic and treatment plans. More often than not, society dismisses these as the treatments of the future or treatments that are just born from the imaginations of screenplay writers that will never become reality. However, that might not be the case.

In 1966, Star Trek introduced the idea of “tricorders,” medical devices that can diagnose health conditions without the need for invasive techniques. Fast forward to 2017; researchers at Stanford University created a program to analyze skin images to accurately determine whether patients have cancer [2]. The computer processes the pixels and searches for specific patterns characteristic of melanoma. The program compares the characteristics of these images with characteristics of sets of test images for both cancerous and healthy patients. It then finds which it is most similar to, which then leads to a definite diagnosis. Society is slowly reaching a point where new technology is accomplishing things humans are incapable of doing, even if given the necessary time and resources. Programs are filling in the gaps and deciphering problems where physicians’ eyes fall short.

Similarly, multiple advancements have been made in arenas that take advantage of the intersection of different fields of science such as computer science and biology. In 2011, researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the most renowned hospitals for patient care and scientific research, came up with a device that can connect to one’s smartphone and obtain the protein levels in tissue samples of patients which can be a crucial indicator of the function and activity of the tissue [1]. Tissues that are obtained from patients are preprocessed such that magnetic nanoparticles are attached to specific proteins on the tissues. Upon exposure to magnetic radiation, the nanoparticles react in various ways which can be measured to help determine the protein content and ultimately predict whether the patient has cancer.

Currently, great strides have been made in finding therapies that could target specific cancers based off of their specific biomarker compositions. Identifying possible biomarkers to separate cancerous cells from healthy ones makes it easier to create tests that are more accurate and specialized to patients and their cancer types. Even urine is filled with crucial biomarkers that are currently left largely untapped [4]. However, efforts are being made by the IBS Research Center for Soft and Living Matter to create routine cancer screening tests using microfluidics to isolate important vesicles secreted by cells in extracellular communication. By peering into the conversations between cells, one can gain insight into the conditions of cells. Cancer cells of different tissues secrete different and unique enzymes that can be detected and signal the presence of cancer. If we can accurately find these, we have a means of easily diagnosing cancer.

The telling patterns of cancer are extremely intricate yet present nonetheless, and it is up to today’s researchers and scientists to seek them out where they are hidden. Time can only tell society’s position in its battle with cancer in the future, but for now we are on a full on sprint.

Edited by: Prajwal Keranahalli

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