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First Person

A radically new kind of cancer test?

Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia of MIT has developed a fast, low-cost urine test that could detect cancer and is taking steps to bring it to market.

Len Rubenstein

I am a doctor and a bioengineer. My PhD is from MIT and my MD is from Harvard; it’s a joint program. I’ve always been interested in trying to use engineering techniques that were derived from miniaturization technologies, like micro nanotechnology, and apply it to medicine.

We call it synthetic biomarkers. Instead of looking at your normal biomarkers in the blood like PSA, prostate-specific antigen, this is just like an artificial one. The way it works is you would get a shot and wait an hour — the shot contains little tiny probes that are sensitive to enzymes that the cancer makes. In the presence of those enzymes, they will make a molecule that comes out in your urine. Then we want to detect those molecules in a sort of cheap and easy way, and so we would use this paper test, which works kind of like a pregnancy test. Basically you see a pink strip light up. The way we imagine it, you would get a shot, wait an hour, pee on the stick, and you will have an answer.


I love inventing in the nanotechnology space, and I have a great team of really talented, passionate trainees around me. That wakes me up every day, the idea that something that we do could make an impact on patient care.

Boston is a phenomenal ecosystem — I think it’s really unparalleled. I went to UC San Diego, that was my first academic position, and I came back to Boston in 2005. Especially having trained here, you’re just sort of addicted to the intensity and the level of excellence in Boston. Not just from a pure academic perspective, but in terms of the entrepreneurship and pharma here, biotech, the talent. It’s just incredible.

— As told to Visi Tilak (Interview has been edited and condensed.)


WHAT’S NEXT Last fall Bhatia and her team won a grant from MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation to devise a business startup plan for this technology and test it further. In February, Bhatia and others published a paper on the work.