In the future, nanobots will dive into the heart of tumours

The expert : Michael J. Cima is a professor of Materials Science at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). He is an expert in materials processing and works on engineering systems designed to improve treatment for some metabolic disorders, cancer, and urological disorders.

How could placing a sensor in a cancer tumour help us to better fight this disease?
Michael Cima. In the fight against cancer, one of the main problems is diagnosing its presence. But another problem, which is just as important, is knowing whether a person receiving a treatment is doing better or not. Currently, oncologists who treat cancers use the appearance and size of tumours to assess how effective a treatment is. If a tumour isn’t growing, that means it’s responding to the treatment. But sometimes, the tumours don’t do anything, despite the fact that the treatment is working.
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Only the tumour’s chemistry can give a clear answer. But to take regular chemical measurements, you need to take biopsies, which are painful examinations that can’t be performed too often. The sensor we’ve developed would be directly implanted when the tumour is first biopsied. Queries can be sent to it remotely in real time, and the sensor provides the tumour’s chemical response that the specialists need. More than anything, it’s a tool that helps us to be more efficient.

Once implanted in a cancer tumour, queries can be remotely submitted to the biomarker developed by MIT, which provides information on the effectiveness of the treatment. This way, there is no need to perform regular biopsies. © Michael Cima, MIT
When will a clinical trial on human patients take place?
We’re currently raising funds to be able to carry out a clinical trial. But we also need to get authorisation. I’d say we need at least a year if everything goes according to plan.
How the mini sensor works
The proper dose of radiation used to attack a tumour depends on its oxygen concentration. The less oxygen, the higher the dose of radiation has to be. This means the oxygen level has to be measured, but it is a difficult process. This is the task that the sensor developed by Professor Cima and his team at MIT is designed to do. Made out of biocompatible silicone, it is just one millimetre in size and can absorb oxygen, changing its magnetic properties. It is this change that is measured, which provides information on oxygen levels, helping to determine the most appropriate dose of radiation. The key advantage of this device is the stability and reproducibility of the measurement throughout the treatment, which cannot currently be obtained.

Do you think we’re moving towards a kind of medicine where sensors are everywhere?
It’s fairly easy to take measurements using sensors, but it’s more difficult to say if it’s effective… It’s a fashionable theme at the moment, with smart watches and bracelets, but it will take time to show that these kinds of measurements are valid, medically speaking.
I think that nonetheless, this kind of instrument will be very widespread among people suffering from cancer, cardiac problems, diabetes or metabolic disorders.

In the United States, Proteus Digital Health, working with Otsuka Pharmaceutical, is on the verge of marketing the first smart medicine – a version of the antidepressant Abilify, which features a sensor that is swallowed with the pill. Using a second external sensor to send data to a smartphone, the device allows doctors to monitor their patients’ treatment more closely, adjusting it if required. © Proteus

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