Researchers improve blood tests’ ability to detect and monitor cancer

Jan. 25, 2024
The advance makes it easier to detect circulating tumor DNA in blood samples, which could enable earlier cancer diagnosis and help guide treatment.

Tumors constantly shed DNA from dying cells, which briefly circulates in the patient’s bloodstream before it is quickly broken down. Many companies have created blood tests that can pick out this tumor DNA, potentially helping doctors diagnose or monitor cancer or choose a treatment.

The amount of tumor DNA circulating at any given time, however, is extremely small, so it has been challenging to develop tests sensitive enough to pick up that tiny signal. A team of researchers from MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has now come up with a way to significantly boost that signal, by temporarily slowing the clearance of tumor DNA circulating in the bloodstream.

The researchers developed two different types of injectable molecules that they call “priming agents,” which can transiently interfere with the body’s ability to remove circulating tumor DNA from the bloodstream.

This approach could enable not only earlier diagnosis of cancer, but also more sensitive detection of tumor mutations that could be used to guide treatment. It could also help improve detection of cancer recurrence.

Sangeeta Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, is one of the senior authors of the new study. J. Christopher Love, the Raymond A. and Helen E. St. Laurent Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute and the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard and Viktor Adalsteinsson, director of the Gerstner Center for Cancer Diagnostics at the Broad Institute, is also a senior author.

Carmen Martin-Alonso PhD ’23, MIT and Broad Institute postdoc Shervin Tabrizi, and Broad Institute scientist Kan Xiong are the lead authors of the paper, which appears in Science.

Read the full release at MIT