Research has led to the creation of a new sensor by MIT chemical engineers, which will allow them to see inside cancer cells, in order to check if a chemotherapy drug is working on the target cells. Scientists can detect the level of hydrogen peroxide within the cells to identify the hydrogen peroxide boosting drugs that support the death of the programmed cells. Other than testing drugs by this method, these sensors can be used for screening a patients’ tumor to determine whether the cells are responding favorably to the drug.

Cancer cells tend to have mutations, which lead to irregular metabolism and abnormally high amounts of hydrogen peroxide. But an extremely high production of the compound can cause damage to the cells. Cancer cells require antioxidant systems to remove this hydrogen peroxide from them.

“Redox drugs” are a type of drugs that serve this purpose by increasing hydrogen peroxide production or obstructing antioxidant systems.

Currently, there’s a real dearth of quantitative, chemically specific tools to be able to measure the changes that occur in tumour cells versus normal cells in response to drug treatment. We really need tools to be able to do more well-designed trials where we figure out which patients are going to respond to this approach and which aren’t, so more of these drugs can be approved. – Hadley Sikes, an associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT

Thus he set out developing the sensor for carefully checking hydrogen peroxide levels inside human cells, and how effective drugs are on them.

Existing hydrogen peroxide sensors developed with proteins obtained from microbes were are not sensitive in the range of the hydrogen peroxide that needs to be detected, but human proteins were found to become oxidized when reacting with rising levels of the chemical.

The sensor made by the researchers changes shape on reaction with hydrogen peroxide, letting them easily detect the lack or presence of hydrogen peroxide. The sensor was tested on two kinds of cells, one susceptible to piperlongumine, a redox drug, and the other, not. Results showed unaltered hydrogen peroxide levels in resistant cells and raised levels in the others, as predicted.

The Haas Family Fellowship in Chemical Engineering, a Samsung Fellowship, the National Science Foundation, and a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface contributed to the funds for the research.

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