Detecting Cancer? There’s a Star Trek-Like App for That

A new bedside system, driven by smartphone and containing impossible-sounding Star Trek-like tech, could allow doctors to quickly diagnose cancers, and would create less pain for patients.


A new bedside-scale system, driven by a smartphone and containing incredible-sounding tech, could allow doctors to quickly diagnose cancers, and also result in less pain for patients when giving samples.


The technology is coming out of research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and it involves a tiny portable NMR machine driven by a specialized smartphone app.

The sensor system is an impossibly Star Trek-sounding palm-sized nuclear magnetic resonance device–a micro-sized version of the same sort of giant MRI machine used in hospitals that we’re all getting used to seeing. These systems use magnetic fields to “line up” molecules in tissue, and then give them a little kick of radio pulses. The way the molecules react to the kick tells you what they’re made of.

In this invention, the research team uses magnetic nanoparticles bonded to tissue samples to measure the levels of various proteins, the presence of which can indicate that a cancerous tumor is present. Up to four protein markers are combined to give higher accuracy, and in tests on 50 patients, the presence of cancer was correctly detected in 96% of cases. A smaller trial, which means the statistics are less reliable, although more startling, correctly detected 100% of cancers. This compares to conventional clinical analysis by immunohistochemical means, which are often below 90% accuracy.

The new device also can operate on only a few thousand cells, meaning that fine needle aspiration can be used instead of other more intrusive sample-gathering techniques, which is better for both medical professionals (who have to donate smaller chunks of time and effort into gathering samples) and for patients, who will suffer less pain and inconvenience, and potentially surgical risk. The entire procedure can happen inside just 60 minutes, and the research team found it worked best over such short timescales, because the protein samples decay with time. They found “surprising” similarity patterns for the protein patterns within different samples from the same tumor, and even between patients, which underlines how accurate and reliable the system could be.

Best of all, this new “quantitative point-of-care” system is small, simple to operate, is managed by a smartphone app that does the various calculations and presents the data to doctors, and can happen right at a patient’s bedside, reducing stress. Visions of Dr. “Bones” McCoy’s medical tricorder, anyone?

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