A new, paper-based urine test has been shown to identify biomarkers associated with cancer as well as blood clots, raising the possibility of improved preventive care and lower mortality rates in areas with limited medical infrastructure.

Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and senior author of an accompanying study, said in a press release that the new technology uses special nanoparticles that interact with tumor proteins called proteases. This gives rise to numerous biomarkers, or biological clues to pathology. Thanks to these tiny signs, oncological diagnosis may soon be no more difficult than peeing on a paper strip.

“When we invented this new class of synthetic biomarker, we used a highly specialized instrument to do the analysis,” Bhatia told reporters. “For the developing world, we thought it would be exciting to adapt it instead to a paper test that could be performed on unprocessed samples in a rural setting, without the need for any specialized equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone.”

In practice, the idea is pretty simple: First, an at-risk patient receives an injection of these nanoparticles. As they travel through the body, they collect certain biological evidence of potential tumor sites. The patient then pees on a strip of paper coated with an admixture of antibodies that help evaluate the chemical info carried by the nanoparticles. If the target biomarker is present, the paper strip reacts.

The study, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the innovation can spot mouse models of cancer as well as blood clots. “This is a new idea — to create an excreted biomarker instead of relying on what the body gives you,” Bhatia explained. “To prove this approach is really going to be a useful diagnostic, the next step is to test it in patient populations.”

Improving Cancer Diagnosis

With cancer rates on the rise, developed nations now account for 70 percent of all cancer deaths worldwide. In 2012, malignant tumors killed nearly 600,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new study is the latest in a growing series of attempts to improve cancer screening and boost early detection of tumor. Another example is the blood test for pancreatic cancer announced by researchers at Johns Hopkins University last year. Researchers hope that these efforts will help bring diagnosis back to a less expensive, more familiar setting.

“I think it would be great to bring it back to this setting, where point-of-care, image-free cancer detection, whether it’s in your home or in a pharmacy clinic, could really be transformative,” Bhatia told reporters.

Source: Warren AD, Kwong GA, Wood DK, Lin KY, Bhatia S. Point-of-care diagnostics for noncommunicable diseases using synthetic urinary biomarkers and paper microfluids. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2014.