Popping a pill to detect cancer? Possible, says Indian-origin scientist

Scientists have developed a unique method to detect cancer using tiny customised DNA rings carrying instructions for making a blood-detectable biomarker that can enter both healthy cells and cancer cells but only cancer cells reciprocate making the biomarker.

US researchers led by India-born physician-scientist Sanjiv Sam Gambhir have developed the futuristic method at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Sanjay Sam Gambhir

The team inserted tiny DNA minicircles into the genes of mice, which caused cancer cells to emit a substance that could be detected from a blood sample. Later the mice with tumours produced a substance that tumour-free mice did not make. A simple blood test that followed 48 hours later easily detected the cancer.

“We want to translate this strategy into humans, so we’ve set it up in a way that’s most likely to be effective, safe and convenient,” said Gambhir. In a futuristic scenario where “You pop a pill into your mouth and swallow it. It dissolves, releasing tiny particles that are absorbed and cause only cancerous cells to secrete a specific protein into your bloodstream”.

“Two days from now, a finger-prick blood sample will expose whether you have got cancer and even give a rough idea of its extent,” he explained.

Though the minicircles were injected intravenously to the mice for the current study, he said it should eventually be possible to deliver them orally via a pill. About the time for the development of the pill,he said it would take few years and not five or ten years. “We haven’t got it down to a pill yet, but the oral delivery part of this is likely a solvable problem — only a few years off, not five or 10 years off,” he said.

But owing to clinical trials, it may take more time, he cautioned. The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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