Is a Urine Test for Cancer Possible?

MIT researchers are developing a low-cost urine test that may be able to detect the disease.

MIT building photo

MIT photo via Margaret Burdge

What if detecting certain cancers was as easy as taking a urine test? What if you could just pop into your local drug store and buy a cancer test? Believe it or not, researchers at MIT are close.

MIT engineers developed a simple and cheap paper test that may improve diagnosis rates and help people get treated earlier for these life threatening diseases, according to a new report released by MIT. The new test and accompanying study was published February 24th in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The test works just like a pregnancy test. Based on a urine sample, the test could revealwithin minuteswhether a person has cancer. (Really.) The approach has already helped to detect infectious diseases, and researchers say that the new technology can also work for noncommunicable diseases (chronic diseases not passed from person to person).

According to a report by MIT:

The technology was developed by MIT professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Sangeeta Bhatia, and it relies on nanoparticles that interact with tumor proteins called proteases, each of which can trigger release of hundreds of biomarkers that are then easily detectable in a patient’s urine.

“When we invented this new class of synthetic biomarker, we used a highly specialized instrument to do the analysis,” Bhatia says in the report. “For the developing world, we thought it would be exciting to adapt it instead to a paper test that could be performed on unprocessed samples in a rural setting, without the need for any specialized equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone.”

According the the study, in tests on mice, the researchers were able to accurately identify colon tumors, as well as blood clots. Bhatia says these tests represent the first step toward a diagnostic device that could someday be useful in human patients. “This is a new idea — to create an excreted biomarker instead of relying on what the body gives you,” she says. “To prove this approach is really going to be a useful diagnostic, the next step is to test it in patient populations.”

So how close are researchers to making this technology applicable for humans? In order to make it happen, the research team (who recently won a grant from MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation to develop a business plan for a startup) will use the grant money to commercialize the technology and then begin clinical trials.

Bhatia says in the report that the technology would most likely first be applied to high-risk populations, such as people who have had cancer previously or had a family member with the disease.

Such technology might also prove useful in the United States, and other countries where more advanced diagnostics are available, as a simple and inexpensive alternative to imaging. “I think it would be great to bring it back to this setting, where point-of-care, image-free cancer detection, whether it’s in your home or in a pharmacy clinic, could really be transformative,” Bhatia says.

With the current version of the technology, patients would first receive an injection of the nanoparticles, then urinate onto the paper test strip. To make the process more convenient, the researchers are now working on a nanoparticle formulation that could be implanted under the skin for longer-term monitoring.