Health and wellness

Tattoo or urine: two new early cancer detection methods announced separately

Scientists announce a biomedical skin implant that turns dark when it detects high levels of calcium caused by four types of tumour, and a urine test that detects eight cancers. Also in the news: a new definition of Alzheimer’s disease

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 5:16pm

Swiss scientists have developed an experimental skin implant that darkens like a mole when it detects subtle changes in the body that may be an early warning sign of cancer, according to a study released on Wednesday.

The implant, or “biomedical tattoo,” as researchers call it, has been tested on lab animals, lasts for about a year and recognises the four most common types of cancer: prostate, lung, colon and breast cancer.

It works by reacting to the level of calcium in the blood, which rises when a tumour is developing. About 40 per cent of cancers could theoretically be detected this way, researchers say.

“The biomedical tattoo detects all hypercalcemic cancers at a very early, asymptomatic stage,” says lead author Martin Fussenegger, professor at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich.

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“If blood calcium levels remain high over longer periods of time, the calcium sensor in the biomedical tattoo cells produces an enzyme, tyrosinase, which converts the amino acid into the black skin pigment, melanin.”

If the wearer notices the spot darken, they should see a doctor about the reason for the change and determine if or what treatment is warranted, he says. “Early detection increases the chance of survival significantly.”

“Nowadays, people generally go to the doctor only when the tumour begins to cause problems. Unfortunately, by that point it is often too late.”

The implant was tested in mice with either cancerous tumours that cause hypercalcemia or tumours that do not affect calcium blood levels.

During a 38-day experiment, the tattoos appeared only on the skin of the hypercalcemic mice, which showed no symptoms of illness.

More research and funding is needed to advance to clinical trials in people, and the process could take a decade, says Fussenegger.

A paper describing the prototype was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.


Japan to trial world’s first urine test to spot cancer

A Japanese firm plans to carry out what it hailed as the world’s first experiment to test for cancer using urine samples, which would greatly facilitate screening for the deadly disease.

Engineering and IT conglomerate Hitachi developed the basic technology to detect breast or colon cancer from urine samples two years ago.

It will now begin testing the method using 250 urine samples, to see if samples at room temperature are suitable for analysis, says Hitachi spokesman Chiharu Odaira.

“If this method is put to practical use, it will be a lot easier for people to test for cancer, as there will be no need to go to a medical organisation for a blood test,” he says.

It is also intended to be used to detect cancers in children, who are often afraid of needles.

Research published earlier this year demonstrated that a new blood test has shown promise in detecting eight different kinds of tumours before they spread elsewhere in the body.

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Usual diagnostic methods for breast cancer consist of a mammogram followed by a biopsy if a risk is detected.

For colon cancer, screening is generally conducted via a stool test and a colonoscopy for patients at high risk.

The Hitachi technology centres around detecting waste materials inside urine samples that act as a biomarker – a naturally occurring substance by which a particular disease can be identified.

The procedure aims to improve the early detection of cancer, saving lives and reducing the medical and social costs.

The experiment will start this month until through September in cooperation with Nagoya University in central Japan.

“We aim to put the technology in use in the 2020s,” says Odaira.


New Alzheimer’s definition shifts research into disease

When you think of dementia, most people automatically think of Alzheimer’s disease, too. But, under a new definition of Alzheimer’s, the two terms no longer will be considered interchangeable.

The new definition is part of a new framework for researching Alzheimer’s disease that the Alzheimer’s Association and the US National Institute on Ageing developed and released.

“Alzheimer’s disease is one cause of dementia,” says Dr Clifford Jack Jnr, a Mayo Clinic radiologist and Alzheimer’s researcher. “It’s the most common cause, but it’s certainly not the only cause. And that has been a source of major confusion.”

Alzheimer’s affects about 44 million people around the world, and more than 100,000 Hongkongers, but remains poorly understood, with no effective treatments despite billions of dollars spent on research.

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Alzheimer’s is now diagnosed by evaluating symptoms and cognitive behaviour associated with the disease. But, Jack says, that can be misleading for research.

In the new framework, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not based on symptoms, but by evidence of neuropathology. Specifically, finding plaque – caused by a naturally occurring protein called beta-amyloid that accumulates in the brain and tangles – formed by a protein called tau that block communications between neurons, will lead to the diagnosis.

It can be done using biomarkers found in cerebral spinal fluid or through brain imaging.

The change is significant, Jack says.

“What we’re saying is that symptoms are a consequence of the disease; not the definition of the disease. People can have the pathology in the brain and be symptom-free. They still have the disease even though they have no symptoms. If they have the pathology, they have the disease,” he explains.

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Jack says changing the definition allows research to better target patients so clinical trials will be more effective. It can allow researchers to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease before a patient has symptoms and allow scientists to develop treatments that stop Alzheimer’s before symptoms develop, improving patients’ quality of life.

He compares this shift to how health care providers treat heart disease.

“The best way to treat cardiovascular disease is by giving an asymptomatic person statins, you know, for 20, 30 years, as opposed to waiting until that person has a stroke or heart attack, and then trying to treat (that),” he says. “It’s only by defining the disease in this way, biologically, that you can identify treatments that prevent the onset of symptoms.”

He and the other scientists releasing the framework hope it will create a common language for researchers to use in the short term.

“Using biomarkers to determine who actually gets into clinical trials – that will lead to more rapid development and identification of treatments,” he says.