How engineered bacteria can track tumours

There is a common misconception that bacteria are freaky microscopic monsters that only mean to harm us. However, after a short lesson in microbiology, you might find out that’s not entirely true! Bacteria also live to aid the human body, playing a huge role in digestion. Nowadays bacteria can live to serve an even higher purpose: tracking tumours before any other modern screening method.

 This study, specifically, targets the early diagnosis of colorectal cancer, which is the third leading cause of death in men and women alike. Although the survival rates have risen over the last decade, the prevalence in patients 50 and under has also been ascending. So, it is becoming more and more important to detect tumours as early as possible. Static screening methods, such as imaging, may offer the positive results too late, since they detect the cancer itself and not the real activity of cancer cells.

Our microscopic friends come to the rescue!

 This is where bio-sensors come in. They are generally “devices that measure biological or chemical reactions by generating signals proportional to the concentration of an analyte in the reaction” according to the National Institutes of Health. They are also not a new or revolutionary concept: L.L. Clark discovered and used the first ever biological sensor in 1950. Bacteria have long been used to detect the metabolic activity of different cells. What is, however, new and riveting about this discovery is that the genetically engineered new bacteria (Acinetobacter Baylyi) can now detect tumour DNA. This was not thought to be possible for mammalian DNA until now.

 So how does this work? Essentially, A. baylyi can ingest the cancerous DNA shed by the tumour. The genetically engineered A. baylyi only survives after ingesting the aforementioned DNA. So, if there is a tumour, the modified bacteria will survive and produce a signal accordingly, therefore the person will test positive for colorectal cancer. If the test is negative, the bacteria will die and therefore it would not produce a signal. 

 It is important to note, however, that this is only the beginning of cancer DNA research, since further testing on this matter is needed. Who would have thought that such a small organism could have such a big impact? If you found this article interesting, stay tuned for more and stay curious with us! Oh, and remember: bacteria are not always foes, they can also be friends! You can read the entire article here.

About the author…

Hello! My name is Ilinca and I am a third year medical student that dabbles in a little bit of everything. I have an undying thirst for knowledge and a great talent for procrastination. Oh and I love hairless cats with all my heart!

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