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Prototype skin implant signals cancer by forming a visible mole

Published on 20/04/18 at 10:43am

Researchers working with Professor Martin Fussenegger at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich in Basel have developed an exciting new skin implant which can serve as an early warning system for four of the most common cancers, alerting the patient in a very obvious way.

The technology is described as a synthetic gene network that the researchers integrate into human body cells, which is then inserted into an implant. It is able to detect prostate, lung, colon and breast cancer at an early stage. Cure rates among some of these are very low, at 32% in prostate and just 11% in colon cancers, particularly because they are not identified until it’s too late.

When blood calcium levels elevate beyond a certain threshold – a key signifier of the threat of cancer – a signal cascade is triggered which stimulates the production of the body’s tanning pigment, melanin in the genetically modified cells. This pigment concentrates, forming a brown mole on the skin, providing a clear alert on what’s occurring.

“An implant carrier should then see a doctor for further evaluation after the mole appears,” explained Fussenegger. “The mole does not mean that the person is likely to die soon," stresses the ETH professor. It simply means that clarification and if necessary treatment are needed.”

The technology ties into the imperativeness of early detection; breast cancer caught early can see survival rate of 98%, but this plunges to around 25% with late diagnoses. “Early detection increases the chance of survival significantly,” remarked Fussenegger. “Nowadays, people generally go to the doctor only when the tumour begins to cause problems. Unfortunately, by that point it is often too late.”

A significant shortcoming of the technology however is that the implant can only remain effective in the body for a limited period. "Encapsulated living cells last for about a year, according to other studies. After that, they must be inactivated and replaced,” Fussenegger noted.

The team stressed that the current model is an early prototype to test feasibility. It has been reliably tested in mouse models and pig skin, but human testing is still a ways off; Dr Fussenegger estimated that bringing such a product to market would take at least another decade of R&D.

Matt Fellows

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