Engineers have designed diagnostic particles that can be aerosolized and inhaled. At bottom is a scanning electron micrograph of the particles, which are coated with nanosensors that interact with cancer-associated proteins in the lungs. (Credit: MIT)

Using a new technology, diagnosing lung cancer could become as easy as inhaling nanoparticle sensors and then taking a urine test that reveals whether a tumor is present. The new diagnostic is based on nanosensors that can be delivered by an inhaler or a nebulizer.

If the sensors encounter cancer-linked proteins in the lungs, they produce a signal that accumulates in the urine, where it can be detected with a simple paper test strip.

The sensors consist of polymer nanoparticles coated with a reporter, such as a DNA barcode, that is cleaved from the particle when the sensor encounters enzymes called proteases, which are often overactive in tumors. Those reporters eventually accumulate in the urine and are excreted from the body.

The researchers designed the strip to detect up to four different DNA barcodes, each of which indicates the presence of a different protease. No pre-treatment or processing of the urine sample is required, and the results can be read about 20 minutes after the sample is obtained.

They now plan to analyze human biopsy samples to see if the sensor panels they are using would also work to detect human cancers. In the longer term, they hope to perform clinical trials in human patients. A company called Sunbird Bio has already run phase 1 trials on a similar sensor developed by Bhatia’s lab, for use in diagnosing liver cancer and a form of hepatitis known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).