Researchers at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich in Switzerland have developed a new biomedical tattoo that acts as an early warning system to the presence of common cancer types.

Although only tested on mice and pig skin so far, the researchers led by Professor Martin Fussenegger believe that when their synthetic gene network is implanted in human skin it’ll be able to alert to early-stage prostate, lung, colon and breast cancer.

Such early detection would not only improve the patient’s chance of survival but also dramatically decrease the cost and stress of invasive treatment.

The gene network works by constantly monitoring the blood calcium level, which if elevated signifies an early-stage developing tumour. When the calcium level exceeds a particular threshold value over a longer period of time, a signal cascade is triggered by the tattoo that initiates production of the body’s tanning pigment melanin in the genetically modified cells. This leads to the skin forming a brown mole.

Professor Fussenegger explained that if the mole appears, the implant carrier shouldn’t panic and should see a doctor for further evaluation and treatment options.

“Early detection increases the chance of survival significantly. Nowadays, people generally go to the doctor only when the tumour begins to cause problems. Unfortunately, by that point it is often too late,” said Professor Fussenegger.

“The implant is intended primarily for self-monitoring, making it very cost effective,” continued Professor Fussenegger.

Due to the material used in the implant it only has a life-span of one year before it needs replacing.

Currently still in prototype phase, Professor Fussenegger and his team of scientists still have a long way to go before human testing can begin.

“Continued development and clinical trials in particular are laborious and expensive, which we as a research group cannot afford,” said Professor Fussenegger. However, he is keen to promote the translation of his developments so that one day they will lead to applicable products.

Professor Fussenegger estimates that bringing such a cancer diagnosis implant to market maturity will take at least 10 years of research and development. He also believes that his invention can help detect other illnesses, such as neurodegenerative diseases and hormonal disorders by replacing the molecular sensor to measure biomarkers other than calcium.

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