The Economist has an interesting profile of Dr. Angela Belcher, who uses viruses to create batteries and new touchscreens is now moving into the medical field. Here is how she proposes to improve tumor detection–and potential treatment–in the future:
The plan is to produce a medical probe which can be used to locate extremely small tumours. One way this is being tried is to get genetically engineered viruses to latch onto carbon nanotubes which glow under light from a laser. These viruses carrying the tubes would be injected into the body, and with light shining on the skin, be capable of glowing up to 10cm or so inside the body. The glow can be detected with a specialised camera.
To get these beacon viruses into the right places, the researchers engineer them to have a second affinity, one that makes them bind to certain kinds of cancer cells. They would then find any tumours, attach to them and glow.
The technique is still experimental and is being tried out in the laboratory on cellular models of ovarian cancer, which can be difficult for surgeons to detect when the tumours are tiny. There is a lot to do, but, says Dr Belcher, “I know we can find very small tumours and that should allow surgeons to remove them.”
It also raises an obvious question: if the viruses can find tumours and light them up could they also carry with them some kind of lethal weapon? Not surprisingly, that possibility is being explored, with attempts to engineer cancer-seeking viruses that can carry both an imaging material and a chemotherapy agent.
One question is how viruses are disposed of after they identify the tumor? Another is ensuring that viruses do not evolve to have a symbiotic relationship with the tumor. Nevertheless, this is a very interesting line or research.