The latest and greatest cancer-detecting technology may end up coming from an organism responsible for countless illnesses and deaths.
Researchers reported last Wednesday that they had modified Escherichia coli (E. coli) – that food poisoning-inducing bacteria – to send out a signal when it found cancer cells in a mouse’s liver.
You see, the researchers equipped E. coli bacteria with genetically encoded digital amplifying genetic switches. The modified bacteria has the ability to stay in a mouse’s body for a month and “sense” cancer cells, for which this particular bacteria already has an affinity.
Once the bacteria has found a cancerous tumor, the organisms have been programed to produce an enzyme that changes the color of the mouse’s urine. Essentially providing the researchers with a sign that cancer cells were present!
This research is particularly exciting because the medical community is in desperate need of an accurate way to detect liver cancer while the disease is in its early stages.
You see, it’s a particularly difficult cancer to detect because of the hefty nature of the organ. Tumors don’t show up well in scans. All too often, liver cancer metastasizes in the colon, lungs, ovaries, or pancreas before it’s detected.
Even worse, the number of patients at risk for developing liver cancer is rising with obesity and hepatitis infections.
This E. coli research is part of the bigger trend of synthetic biology, which “aims to design and engineer biological components and systems for specific purposes,” according to Jessica Tucker, the Director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering’s program in synthetic biology for technology development.
These papers “elegantly merge the promise of synthetic biology with very practical and clinical applications in biosensors,” says Tucker.
It’s easy to see the life-saving potential if these modified bacteria were put to use in the real world.
Imagine skipping the multitude of expensive and time-consuming cancer screenings and, instead, going about your daily life while microscopic bacteria comb your body for any harmful cancer cells.