Scientists have created a bacterium capable of detecting bowel cancer. This innovative approach could revolutionize cancer diagnosis by offering a non-invasive method of early detection. A team of international researchers has successfully demonstrated how the engineered microbe can detect bowel cancer in cellular and animal models.
The concept of using modified microbes as diagnostic tools is not entirely new. Our gastrointestinal tract is naturally populated with bacteria, and scientists are exploring the possibility of using certain strains as probiotic sensors. Such “biosensors” have already been shown to be effective in monitoring gut health and detecting various diseases such as intestinal bleeding, infections and liver tumors in animal models.
The research team, led by biologist Robert Cooper of the University of California, San Diego, focused on creating bacteria capable of detecting specific DNA sequences secreted by colon cancer cells. The bacterium Acinetobacter baylyi, known for its ability to attach DNA from the environment, was used for this purpose. By modifying A. baylyi, the researchers allowed it to target and identify sequences carrying mutations that are often found in colorectal cancer cells.
The programmable system was designed so that if A. baylyi encountered tumor DNA, it would incorporate it into its genome, activating an antibiotic resistance gene. This activation would allow A. baylyi to grow on agar plates containing antibiotics, indicating the presence of cancer cells. This discovery demonstrates the possibility of using bacteria as biosensors to diagnose diseases in hard-to-reach areas of the body.
Biomedical scientist Susan Woods from the University of Adelaide (Australia) emphasizes the significance of this study, “This study demonstrates how bacteria can be engineered to detect specific DNA sequences to diagnose diseases in hard-to-reach areas.”
The biosensor is currently designed to detect specific KRAS mutations found in colorectal, lung and pancreatic cancers. However, further studies are needed to determine if A. baylyi can be safely delivered orally and reliably detect cancer cells in stool samples. The sensitivity of the system will be crucial to its potential clinical application and ability to provide early detection of colon cancer.
This pioneering development holds great promise for the future of cancer diagnosis. By utilizing the natural abilities of bacteria, scientists are paving the way for non-invasive and highly sensitive methods to detect different types of cancer. If successful, this biosensor could significantly improve early diagnosis rates and ultimately save countless lives.