This "Tattoo" Could Tell You If You Have Cancer

Pigment appears on the skin when the implant detects signs of a tumor. ETH Zurich 

A new skin implant turns darker when it detects the presence of tumors, essentially producing a new freckle, or pigmented "tattoo", warning you that cancer may be present.

Often people suffering from cancer only find out after they start to develop unpleasant symptoms. This new implant, however, could diagnose you much earlier.

“Nowadays, people generally go to the doctor only when the tumor begins to cause problems. Unfortunately, by that point it is often too late,” Professor Martin Fussenegger, one of the study’s authors, told The Telegraph.

"Early detection increases the chance of survival significantly.”

A team led by ETH Zurich created the implants using genetically modified human skin cells. They work by detecting rising levels of calcium in the body, which tends to be the first sign that a tumor is present. Then, when the implant senses these signs, it produces melanin, the pigment that naturally darkens skin. This causes a dark mole – or “tattoo” as the researchers describe it – to appear, alerting the owner that a tumor might be lurking. The findings are published in Science Translational Medicine.

The new technique only works on breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers, as they usually produce substances that break down the bones, which in turn causes calcium levels to rise.

So far, the implants have only been tested in the skin of mice injected with colon or breast cancer cells. Only eight mice were injected with cancers that raised their calcium levels, but the synthetic mole appeared on every one. Meanwhile, it didn’t appear on the skin of mice injected with cancers that don’t break down the bones and cause calcium to be released. All the mice showed no other cancer symptoms during the 3-week trial.

It’s important to note that the study was conducted on mice (not people) and that a small sample size was used. Therefore, we don’t know whether the technique will work on people, but the fact that it was successful on human skin transplanted on mice is a promising sign.

What’s more, tumors aren’t the only reason why our calcium levels can raise, for example, kidney problems do the same thing. Still, regardless of the cause, being made aware that you have rising calcium levels that aren’t caused by a tumor could allow diagnosis of a different disease.   

People particularly susceptible to certain types of cancer could benefit from the implant. For example, certain women carry the BRCA mutation that makes them much more likely to develop breast cancer than those who don’t carry it. If the implant works successfully in people, it could let these women know if a tumor is developing before it is too late.

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