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New Healthcare applications from old technology

Photo Credit: Mass General Cancer Center

One of the greatest challenges that oncologists and patients face is finding the best treatment for advanced stages of cancer. It has long been understood that an early diagnosis was the best predictor of survival, but many cancers do not produce symptoms until late in the game, and there are limited screening opportunities to catch cancer before it has a chance to grow and/or spread.

Of the available screening options, most are expensive, invasive, or impractical to implement to the general population. This may be changing. The widespread distribution of smartphones, tablets, and wearable electronics, with their integrated sensors and communication capabilities, makes them an ideal platform for inexpensive point of care (POC) diagnosis, particularly in resource-limited settings.

Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and Center for Systems Biology have devised an inexpensive and non-invasive way of diagnosing tumors at the molecular level, with the use of a smart-phone technology. This innovation could have far reaching benefits; global health communities with limited resources for rapid diagnosis of cancer cells.

What is the Problem?

Cesar Castro, MD, was a co-lead investigator of the project along with Ralph Weissleder, MD, PhD, also of the MGH Cancer Center and Center for Systems Biology. Castro saw the need for low cost, portable technologies that could be used for diagnosis and possible treatment on the spot. In some developing countries people travel all day to an appointment, and might not be able to return again in a timely fashion once cancer is detected. More than likely, it may take days or even weeks to get a diagnosis.

Cervical cancer, for example, is highly preventable through cytologic (cellular) screening programs that facilitate the detection and treatment of precancerous lesions. Such screening, however, requires an established laboratory, highly trained cytotechnologists, and up to three visits for screening, evaluation of cytologic abnormalities, and treatment and is therefore difficult to implement and sustain in settings with limited resources.

“We believe the [smart-phone technology] platform we have developed provides essential features at an extraordinary low cost,” said  Dr. Castro.

How do they do it?

Traditionally, blood smears or aspirates are analyzed with conventional microscopes, which requires trained microscopists, bulky optics, and high user dependence.  Recent advances in digital holography, have allowed for a newer method of visualizing tumor cells. Digital diffraction diagnostics (D3) applies computational analyses to decode the distinct diffraction patterns generated by the various cancer targeted microbeads created by the MGH investigators.

To learn more about the research occurring at the Mass General Cancer Center, visit www.massgeneral.org/cancer.