MIT Professor Creates Cancer-Detecting Yogurt

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Don Heupel/Reuters

Colonoscopies and MRIs as methods of testing for colorectal cancer may be on the way out and a spoonful of yogurt may be on the way in, thanks to an MIT professor’s innovation.

Professor Sangeeta Bhatia developed synthetic molecules that, when introduced to the body, find their way to tumors. If cancer is present, the cancer cells produce an enzyme that breaks the introduced molecules down into small enough particles that they can be processed by the kidneys and detected in excreted urine.

Previously the molecules were injected into the body. But now, Bhatia has discovered a way for patients to ingest the molecules instead—by modifying a type of bacteria in yogurt. Additionally, urinalysis previously required lab instruments. Now a piece of paper similar to the ones in pregnancy tests is used.  The yogurt and urine test duo is meant to be a cheaper and more effective way of diagnosing cancer early.

So far, the process has only been tested with mice, but Bhatia hopes that if clinical trials prove effective in people too, it could transforms diagnostics. By not requiring specialized instruments, her method would especially help patients in developing countries where expensive equipment is inaccessible and cancer screening is rare.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), 40 percent of people with colorectal cancer are diagnosed early, which enhances their life expectancy. The ACS mainly attributes this low statistic to the lack of people who get screened. If this less invasive and less expensive testing method is introduced to the public, the number of people who opt for screening may grow. Given the choice between a colonoscopy and a spoonful of yogurt, which would you pick?