A new synthetic gene network that looks like a mole on the skin could work as an early warning system for those who are at the risk of cancer. The artificial mole can detect the four most common types of cancers — prostate, lung, colon and breast cancer.
Cardiovascular diseases and cancer are the top two causes for death in most industrialized countries, but most patients with cancer are diagnosed only after cancer tumors have grown, significantly reducing the chances of recovery, reports MedicalXpress. The disease can be devastating not only in terms of treatment and the effects it has on the body, but also costs with the cure rate for prostate cancer at 32 percent and colon cancer stands at only 11 percent.
A research team from the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich in Basel have devised this early warning system that looks for signs in a person's body that can point out to the early growth of cancer, namely elevated calcium levels in the blood. This can mean a tumor is growing somewhere in the body, notes the report.
The early warning system is made of a genetic network that is integrated into human cells, which will work as an implant. This implant made up of modified cells is then placed under the skin where it will begin to constantly monitor the body's calcium levels, says the report. At this time, nothing is seen and the implant stays under the skin. When in future, if the body's calcium levels exceed a certain threshold over a long period of time, the implant triggers a "signal cascade" which in turn initiates the production of melanin –the tannin pigment– in the implant. It will present itself as a brown mole that is visible.
Calcium was chosen as a marker because it is strongly regulated in the body, says the report. While bones offer a good buffer, any excess calcium for long enough could signal the growth of one of the four cancer cells.
Not only will the mole show up in case there is an abnormal amount of calcium in the system, it actually shows up well before even conventional methods to test for cancer show positive results, claim the researchers. "An implant carrier should then see a doctor for further evaluation after the mole appears," explains Fussenegger. It is no reason to panic. "The mole does not mean that the person is likely to die soon," Martin Fussenegger, one of the researchers involved in the study. It means that the person needs to take steps and consult a doctor right away.
"Nowadays, people generally go to the doctor only when the tumor begins to cause problems. Unfortunately, by that point it is often too late," says Fussenegger. If detected early enough, the chances of recovery for breast cancer is about 98 percent, he says.