Smart contact lenses can examine chemicals in tears to diagnose cancer

LOS ANGELES — Scientists have created smart contact lenses that can diagnose cancer by examining the chemicals in a wearer’s eyes.

Researchers say the lenses detect tumors by identifying certain substances found in tears during the disease’s early stages. The breakthrough could open the door to an inexpensive “one-size-fits-all” screening program.

A team from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation explain that the lenses capture transporters called exosomes, secret messengers within our bodies. Found within cells, they are tiny bubble-like vesicles secreted into blood, saliva, urine, and tears.

On the surface are a wealth of proteins, some fueled by cancer, viral infections, or injury. They can also strongly influence tumor regulation, progression, and spread — offering hope that the proteins can lead scientists to better anti-cancer drugs.

Minimizing delays to treatment improves survival rates. Every month can raise risk of death from cancer by around 10 percent. The Terasaki Institute team says the contact lenses are fitted with microchambers bound to antibodies that the exosomes stick to.

In experiments, they were successfully tested on exosomes secreted into lab liquids from 10 different tissue and cancer cell lines, and tears from 10 human volunteers.

Smart contact concept
Scientists from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation (TIBI) have developed a contact lens that can capture tears for the detection of exosomes, nanometer-sized vesicles found in bodily secretions which have the potential for being diagnostic cancer biomarkers. (Credit: Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation, using Biorender software)

“This antibody- conjugated signaling microchamber contact lens (ABSM-CL) can be stained for detection with nanoparticle-tagged specific antibodies for selective visualization. This offers a potential platform for cancer pre-screening and a supportive diagnostic tool that is easy, rapid, sensitive, cost-effective, and non-invasive,” the study authors write in a media release.

Exosomes were once thought to be the dumping grounds for unwanted materials in the body. Scientists now know that they carry different biomolecules between cells.

“Exosomes are a rich source of markers and biomolecules which can be targeted for several biomedical applications,” says Ali Khademhosseini, Ph.D., TIBI’s Director and CEO. “The methodology that our team has developed greatly facilitates our ability to tap into this source.”

Previous attempts to harness their importance have been hampered by problems in isolating enough to provide sufficient information. Current methods involve tedious, complicated, time-consuming, and costly equipment — taking at least 10 hours to complete. The team’s simple technique eliminates these issues. Moreover, tears are a better and cleaner source of exosomes than other bodily fluids.

Both the chambers and lens were built using direct laser cutting and engraving rather than conventional cast molding. In addition, they chemically modified the surfaces to activate them for antibody binding.

Standard methods involve metallic or nano-carbon materials in expensive clean-room settings. The exosomes are scanned using a pair of antibodies on gold nanoparticles so potential signs of cancer can be visualized. Both are specific for two different surface markers found on all exosomes, Prof. Khademhosseini explains.

Further analysis showed the contact lenses identified exosomes in solutions from three cell lines with varying surface markers and using different combinations of antibodies.

“The resultant patterns of detection and non-detection of exosomes from the three different cell lines were as expected, thus validating the ABSM-CL’s ability to accurately capture and detect exosomes with different surface markers,” the researchers write.

The team describes the results, published in Advanced Functional Materials, as “encouraging.”

“With these encouraging results, this ACSM-PCL is promised to be the next generation smart contact lens as an easy-to-use, rapid, noninvasive monitoring platform of cancer pre-screening and supportive diagnosis,” study authors conclude.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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