Now all they need is the ten-minute cure.
No, seriously, this is interesting and promising. While a patient is in a doctor’s or dentist’s office, the test can be run and provide results that are much more sensitive than x-rays or other diagnostic methods.
It’s done with “biomarkers.” All cells have hundreds (thousands?) of different proteins on their surfaces, and the specific kinds are characteristic of specific cells. Cancer cells are bizarre in many ways, and have lots of unusual proteins not otherwise found on normal cells. It’s possible to produce a complementary protein that can bind to a specific weirdo protein, and attach a bit of fluorescing dye to the end of the complement.
The complement binds, and when you look at the whole sample under a fluorescence-imaging system (specialized microscopes, but also cheaper gizmos), the cancer cells light up bright green. If there are no cancer cells, nothing lights up. Cancer cells can be detected, so cancers can be caught much earlier than the tumor stage.
The device only works when given a sample, so the first application is a test for oral cancer. (Via Technology Review, which is always full of fascinating news.) Cells from any surface accessible externally, such as the cervix, skin, or rectum, could be diagnosed this way. I also don’t see any reason why any liquid sample, such as blood, cerebrospinal fluid, maybe even cells in suspension, couldn’t be tested the same way. The biomarkers are different, though, so each type of cancer requires its own sampler system.
I’m not sure when the first of these devices might come to a dentist’s office near you, but as an external diagnostic test there aren’t the same sort of years-long studies to be done as for drugs. The future is (kinda sorta) here. All we need is a medical industry that can deliver it.
Being a pessimist, I’m not sure the cure for cancer isn’t a simpler problem.