The scariest thing about cancer is our inability to detect it early. Cancer is an insidious disease; most types of cancer start to produce symptoms only in later stages when they are harder to treat and the chances to cure them are lower.
Researchers all over the world are working on developing diagnostic tools for the early detection of cancer, and a team from Switzerland came up with a rather creative and unusual new tool: a biomedical tattoo.
The study on this new method was published on April 18 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
What is this tattoo and how it works?
The tattoo consists of engineered calcium-sensitive cells that are implanted under the skin. The cells are initially invisible, but when blood calcium levels become high, the cells release melanin and change the color of the tattoo.
High calcium level in the blood, medically known as hypercalcemia, is one of the signs of cancer, as well as some other health problems. Martin Fussenegger, the lead author of the study, said:
Forty percent of all cancers – including colon cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer – disrupt calcium balance (homeostasis).
The biomedical tattoo is designed to catch mild hypercalcemia.
So, once the tattoo becomes visible on the skin, it indicates hypercalcemia, which in its turn could indicate cancer.
What are the drawbacks of this biomedical tattoo?
WebMD spoke to oncologists and they are somewhat skeptical. Dr. Janice Dutcher, a medical oncologist with the Cancer Research Foundation in New York City, stressed the fact that high calcium levels are not a reliable early indicator of many cancers. For instance, kidney cancer causes high blood calcium when it has already progressed.
Dr. Norman Edelman, the senior medical advisor for the American Lung Association, agreed. Speaking from his own experience, he said elevated calcium levels tend to appear when cancer has already spread.
Anyway, the findings of the study are promising. As the study lead author pointed out, a few common cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer, may cause hypercalcemia early on. In addition to helping diagnose cancer, the tattoo may also be useful in diagnosing neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, and endocrine disorders, including hyperparathyroidism. So we’ll wait and see.
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