MIT Researchers Are Developing a Device That Measures Cancer Treatment

With the tool, doctors could see immediately if a tumor is responding to therapy.

A couple months may not seem like a particularly long time, but for cancer patients unsure if their chemotherapy is working, it can feel like forever. A new project from MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, however, could give doctors a much better way to get real-time updates about a patient’s progress, allowing them to improve therapy earlier and more effectively.

Led by MIT engineering professor and Koch investigator Michael Cima, a team of researchers are developing a biochemical sensor that could be implanted in cancerous tissue during a patient’s first biopsy. After that, it would stay in the tissue and transmit data about the state of the tumor to an external device, allowing doctors to see and adapt to changes as they happen. “Rather than waiting months to see if the tumor is shrinking, you could get an early read to see if you’re moving in the right direction,” Cima explained in a statement.

That’s a marked change from current cancer treatment monitoring, which mainly involves magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or invasive biopsies, two techniques that don’t always give an in-depth reading and can be logistically difficult to administer. The biosensor, on the other hand, sophisticatedly measures the tumor’s pH and oxygen levels—biomarkers that demonstrate cancerous tissue’s condition—to give a well-rounded, immediate look at how it’s responding to treatment.

In their initial study, MIT researchers implanted the sensors in rats for a few weeks, and confirmed that they could effectively measure pH and oxygen levels. Next up, they’ll work on long-term implantation to see how well the devices monitor treatment response over time. “I want to push these probes so we can use them to monitor tumor response,” Cima said in the statement. “We did a little bit of that in these experiments, but we need to make that really robust.”