Here’s the tiny sensor that could help fight cancer

An illustration of the tiny sensor that could help doctors treat cancerous tumors.
An illustration of the tiny sensor that could help doctors treat cancerous tumors. –Courtesy of MIT

Researchers at MIT believe they’ve found a better way to fight cancer – by using a simple magnet.

The research team under MIT professor Michael Cima had already figured out how to inject a miniature sensor into a cancerous tumor and then test its environment. The sensor would function like a long-term medical biopsy, giving doctors a continuous look at how a tumor is developing.

However, to get that data from the embedded sensor to a doctor, they needed to put the sensor into an MRI machine, a costly and complicated procedure.

No longer. In what Cima calls a “big innovation,’’ his research team created a way to make the sensor’s data available with a rare-earth magnet and a tiny coil. Cheap and simple.


The technology has the opportunity to allow doctors to follow a tumor’s progression over time and better monitor cancer treatment. In addition, Cima said he is starting to think it could have an impact in environmental studies as well.

How the sensors work

The sensor is about two millimeters in size. —MIT

In testing on rodents over the past two years, the MIT team’s tiny sensors are injected into tissue and measure oxygen and pH levels, both of which provide information on how a tumor is progressing.

To create the technology, Cima’s researchers wrapped a coil around the sensor. That made it function like an antenna that sends information without needing to take the sensor out of the body. Think of the chips on new credit cards that use electro-magnetism to wirelessly send information.

“It’s sort of like the RFID tags, how the antenna inductively couples to the chip,’’ Cima said. “We’re doing the same thing.’’

What the technology could do for doctors

Tumors thrive in low-oxygen environments, so by measuring the tumor’s oxygen level, doctors would be able to better understand if treatments were working. Instead of performing a biopsy every time a patient comes to the hospital, this sensor would continuously update a physician on the tumor’s progress.


That ease of extracting oxygen and pH level information would make the sensors valuable in more than just a hospital setting, Cima said. It could prove useful in environment studies.

For example, he said, the sensors and magnetic technology could be used to forewarn algal blooms in streams and lakes. Algal blooms remove oxygen from the water and can choke off underwater plant and animal life.

“If you want to have continuous monitoring of dissolved oxygen, this would be a great sensor to do that.’’

Cima and his team of graduate students Chris Vassiliou and Vincent Liu still have a ways to go before the sensor comes to market. They have been testing successfully on rodents for the past two years, and hope to soon do clinical human trials, though they’ll have plenty of adjustments to make before then.

However long the testing takes, the RFID innovation has Cima thinking outside the box.

“This could be used for lots of things outside of just what I was originally intending,’’ Cima said.

Photos: The MIT of old.

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