Smartphones could change the way population cancer screening is done in the future

Jared Talavera

Photo Credit: Japanexperterna.se via Flickr cc
Photo Credit: Japanexperterna.se via Flickr cc

Jorge (pronounced as Horhay) Soto was born and raised in Mexico. Both of his parents worked as medical doctors there. Since his parents worked many hours, his aunty Marti took on most of the parental duties.

“She would look after me. We would play video games together. She even taught me how to cook. She was that kind of person. She took care of me with whatever I needed” said Jorge.

As an adult, he now works as a cancer technology engineer at Miroculus in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was only recently that his aunty Marti was the one who needed to be taken care of.

“Almost a year ago my aunt started experiencing back pains. She went to the doctor and they told her it was a normal injury for someone who had been playing tennis for almost thirty years. They recommended for her to do some therapy” he said.

His aunty was not suffering from a tennis injury. She had lung cancer. It took months and numerous tests before she received her diagnosis.

He wondered what could have caused her to develop lung cancer. “She never smoked a cigarette. She never drank alcohol. She had been playing sports for almost half of her life.”

His aunty did not fit the profile for someone who would develop lung cancer. When she was admitted to the hospital doctors thought Marti had tuberculosis, but the tests returned negative. That was the moment the doctors decided to do a biopsy.

Jorge stated that, “Mexico is an emerging economy and we have very sophisticated hospitals in general. If she wanted to get her biopsy done she needed to travel five hours to Mexico City.” This was where the closest hospital was that could process her biopsy.

Two weeks later, the results returned with stage III lung cancer. At stage III, only 8 per cent of people live beyond five years.

Marti was not diagnosed any differently in Mexico than she would have if she was seen by a doctor in the United States. The only difference was that it took a lot more time to receive a diagnosis.

“Different doctors describing symptoms, describing diseases over and over was stressful and frustrating” said Jorge. He continued by saying, “that was how cancer diagnosis had been done since the beginning of history.” 

Cancer is an unfair disease. It is unfair in how it is being diagnosed and treated.

Long before Jorge’s aunty Marti died of lung cancer and even before she struggled to receive a diagnosis, he was working on an invention in a lab in Silicon Valley that would simplify cancer detection.

“Today, cancer detection mainly happens when symptoms appear.” Detection at this point, he believes, is too late. “It is too expensive for our families. It is too expensive for humanity. It costs us billions of dollars, but it also costs us the people we love.”

He suspects that in the next 10 to 15 years, as research and technology advances, cancer has the potential to be a more controllable chronic disease similarly to HIV/AIDS or diabetes. Jorge and his team of scientists at Miroculus are continuing to strive in providing cancer patients the one thing that his aunty did not have – time.

Millions of people around the world still do not have access to early cancer detection methods. Research has shown that detecting cancer early can lead to greater treatment outcomes and quality of life. Early detection is the closest we have to a cure.

“We know that we can change this in our lifetime,” Jorge says, “that is why my team and I have decided to begin this journey. This journey to try to make cancer detection at the early stages cheaper, smarter and more accessible than ever before.”

Miroculus have developed a method for detecting small biomarker molecules that circulate freely in human blood called micro-RNA. These molecules are associated with particular cells and tissues in the human body. Micro-RNA was first discovered by scientists in 1993. By 2008, scientists discovered that when various areas of the body are damaged these areas release specific types of micro-RNA into the bloodstream.

Micro-RNA is like a tiny bubble in a person’s bloodstream that says, “hey, I’ve got this information about something going wrong with your body which you may want to know about.” 

The problem with micro-RNA is that it cannot be detected easily with today’s technology. Either the technology is too expensive (such as a sequencer which requires highly trained scientists to use it) or the technology cannot detect sufficient amounts.

Jorge and his team developed a new way to detect micro-RNA. These biomarkers have the potential to indicate the presence of cancer in its early stages.

Imagine going for a simple blood test. The blood sample is placed into 96 tiny wells on a special lab plate the size of an iPhone 6 Plus. Each of the wells is covered with a biochemical agent which reacts in the presence of particular types of micro-RNA. The plate is heated in a device that looks like a crockpot.

What has made the process cheaper and easier is the use of a smartphone placed over the plate as it is being heated. An app developed by Jorge and his team takes photos of the plate every minute. Each photo shows the amount and speed at which wells begin to glow. That information is sent through a server where it can be reviewed without the need of a doctor or scientist. The technology can be used wherever a smartphone can be taken.

Jorge states that “this entire process lasts around 60 minutes, but when the process is over what is inside is a real sample that we just detected for detracting cancer.”

Micro-RNA not only appears in cancer patients, but also when a person experiences a cold, hangover or even a broken arm. The biomarker can then be detected in blood. The app developed by Jorge and his team are improving the app’s ability to determine the difference between micro-RNA that is not related to cancer and those that are. If with more testing the technology shows encouraging results, there could be the possibility for it to be available to the public in the next three years.

Even though the technology is still in its infancy, it has been able to successfully detect the micro-RNA pattern of pancreatic, lung, breast and hepatic (liver) cancer. Currently, Jorge and his team of scientists at Miroculus are collaborating with the German Cancer Research Center. Together they are conducting a clinical trial involving 200 women for breast cancer research.

Jorge has said that, “I am certain that in the very near future, because of this and other breakthroughs that we are seeing everyday in life sciences, the way we see cancer will radically change. It will give us a chance of detecting it early and understanding it better to find a cure.”   

What are your thoughts about a smartphone app that has the potential to detect cancer?

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