Cancerous tissues can be difficult to spot, particularly at the early stages. The malignant cells are sometimes indistinguishable from their healthy counterparts, making cancer diagnoses that much more challenging. What if there was a way of catching tumors earlier simply by making them glow?
Such a diagnostic breakthrough may soon be within reach, thanks to an innovation by chemists from ETH Zurich who have created the first fluorescent sensor molecule for detecting modifications in collagen strands.
Collagen makes up a third of all the protein in the human body and is a connective tissue responsible for keeping joints healthy and skin stretchy. Growing tumors ramp up collagen production, during which collagen fibers cross-link to form a network of strong, rope-like strands. This cross-linking process involves an enzyme known as LOX.
The new sensor molecule specifically picks up LOX activity, emitting fluorescence once it comes into contact with oxidized collagen. Interestingly, in a series of experiments performed on mice, the researchers revealed that the molecule latches onto collagen fibers and lights up specifically during the genesis of new tissue, when LOX activity is heightened.
“Thanks to its modular design with three components—the sensor, the peptide, and the reactive group—our system is exceptionally specific and precise,” explained Matthew Aronoff, senior scientist and one of the lead inventors of the technology.
According to the researchers, this technology opens up a wealth of novel diagnostic and biomedical applications, including cancer detection. For example, it’s conceivable that the molecule could one day be used during surgical procedures to remove tumors, illuminating tumor borders such that surgeons can make sure to excise all malignant tissues completely. The sensor can also be helpful for pathologists examining tissue biopsies, helping to pinpoint the precise boundaries of a tumor from a patient sample.
In addition to tumor detection, the fluorescent molecule can also monitor wound healing, another biological process that sees an uptick in collagen production. Such a platform would allow physicians to track disruptions in healing, particularly in patients with underlying conditions such as diabetes that impede skin regeneration.