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Detecting pediatric cancer with bacteria

Ariane Briegel wants to use bacteria to detect cancer at an early stage. Together with postdoc Alise Muok, she is developing a method to quickly and cheaply test the urine of patients for the presence of suspicious molecules. They receive a grant of approximately 150,000 euros from the Dutch Cancer Society.

Urine test for cancer

Briegel and Muok are developing a detection method for neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that mainly affects young children. It is a special device that detects the presence of certain suspicious molecules in urine. ‘These are degradation products of the stress hormone norepinephrine,’ says Briegel. ‘These so-called chemical markers - molecules that can indicate for example the presence of certain diseases - are found in high amounts in the urine of a person with cancer.’ Currently, such urine tests are carried out in the laboratory, but this procedure is costly, complicated and time-consuming. The new method is designed to provide a quick answer and is therefore suitable for the screening of children with symptoms as well as for monitoring the effect of treatment on patients.

Ariane Briegel (left) and Alise Muok.

Swimming bacteria

In order to detect the chemical markers, Briegel wants to use E. coli bacteria. ‘This bacterium has a special nose that detects the chemical markers’, she explains. ‘If the bacterium detects markers, it can use its motility apparatus to swim towards them. It is precisely this special behaviour that we want to use for our detection method! By making the bacteria fluorescent, we can follow exactly what they do. This allows us to check whether they find chemical markers. In this way, the device can quickly determine whether or not the patient has cancer.’

'We want to use the fascinating behaviour of bacteria to detect diseases as cancer.'


Useful behaviour

‘Both Muok and I are fascinated by the behaviour of bacteria. It is very interesting that these small organisms have the ability to perceive their environment and to control their mobility.’ But apart from their great interest in the behaviour of bacteria, both researchers were also looking for a way to utilise their knowledge in practical applications. Briegel: 'That's why we looked at how we could use this behaviour as a tool for detecting diseases such as cancer'. With the money the Dutch Cancer Society, Briegel and Muok will test the feasibility of the new method.  

Cover photo: Fluorescent bacteria accumulating around marker molecules. Photo: Ariane Briegel

The Dutch Cancer Society awards over 34 million euros to 57 new cancer research projects. The projects cover the entire spectrum of cancer research: from early detection of cancer to surgical innovations and from short preliminary examinations to large-scale national partnerships. The studies awarded will start in 2020. Fred Falkenburg, director of the Dutch Cancer Society: 'Many thanks go to our donors and volunteers. Thanks to them, we can invest in cancer research on this scale and contribute to better prospects for cancer patients'.

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