What's A Better Way To Detect Cancer?

What's A Better Way To Detect Cancer?

9:36am Jul 31, 2015
"We have 21st-century medical treatments and drugs to treat cancer, but we still have 20th-century procedures and processes for diagnosis," says Jorge Soto.
"We have 21st-century medical treatments and drugs to treat cancer, but we still have 20th-century procedures and processes for diagnosis," says Jorge Soto.
James Duncan Davidson/TED

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Fighting Cancer

About Jorge Soto's TED Talk

We often discover cancer after it's too late to treat. Jorge Soto is in the process of creating a simple, fast and cheap method for early cancer detection and all it takes is a few drops of blood.

About Jorge Soto

Jorge Soto is a cancer technologist and CTO of Miroculus, a company devoted to designing an inexpensive method of detecting cancer before it is too late to treat. They hope to create a device that can give top-tier medical access to all, regardless of physical and socioeconomic boundaries. Soto is a graduate of both Tec de Monterrey and Singularity University. In September 2013, he returned to Mexico to help the President's Office develop strategies and projects that encourage civic participation, transparency, accountability and innovation in Mexico, and improve the communication between citizens and their institutions.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Jorge Soto grew up in Mexico. His parents are both doctors there, and like doctors anywhere, they work a lot. So when Jorge was a kid, his Aunt Maty was the one who would look after him.

JORGE SOTO: So she used to take care of me. We played video games together. She even taught me how to cook. So she was that kind of person. She took care of me whenever I needed.

RAZ: Today, Jorge is an engineer. He lives in the Bay Area now. And it was only recently his Aunt Maty was the one who needed taking care of.


SOTO: Almost a year ago, my aunt started suffering back pains. She went to see a doctor, and they told her that it was a normal injury for someone that had been playing tennis for almost 30 years. They recommended her do some therapy.

RAZ: That was Jorge on the TED stage in 2014. His aunt, she wasn't suffering from a tennis injury. She had lung cancer. But it would take months and a series of different tests before they even diagnosed it.


SOTO: Her lifestyle was almost free of risk. She never smoked a cigarette. She never drank alcohol, and she had been playing sports for almost half her life.

So it was - she didn't fit the profile of a person that you could suspect that has lung cancer.

RAZ: Which is why an injury or a nasty infection, at least initially, seemed more likely.

SOTO: She also used to volunteer at a hospital. So they actually thought that it was tuberculosis. So they did a study for tuberculosis. It was negative so that was the moment when they decided, OK, let's go biopsy because we have no idea what it is.

RAZ: And at this point, when Jorge's aunt got a biopsy, that's when you'd expect things to finally move faster. But, in fact, it was just the opposite.

SOTO: Well, Mexico, although it's an emerging economy and we have very sophisticated hospitals in general - still, if she wanted to get her biopsy done, she needed to travel five hours to Mexico City to the closest hospital that could process her biopsy.


SOTO: And two weeks later, the results of the biopsy came back. It was stage three lung cancer.

RAZ: And at that stage, stage three, only eight percent of people live beyond five years. Now, the thing is Jorge's aunt wasn't diagnosed any differently in Mexico than she would have been anywhere else. The only difference there was that it took a lot more time.


SOTO: But that process of going back and forth with new tests, different doctor, describing symptoms, discarding diseases over and over was stressful and frustrating. And that is the way cancer diagnoses have been done since the beginning of history. However, today, my aunt, she's fighting bravely and going through this process with a very positive attitude.

RAZ: Again, this was Jorge in late 2014 when he gave his TED Talk.

SOTO: And one month or so after the TED Talk, the cancer spread in - all over her body, and we spent Christmas and New Year's Eve together, all - the entire family. And she knew what was going to happen, and everybody knew, and we enjoyed our time together. And she was very calm and happy.

RAZ: That must have been so hard.

SOTO: Yeah. Yeah, it's a very unfair disease. It's very unfair that - both how it's being diagnosed and how it's being treated.

RAZ: The tragic irony of this story is that long before his Aunt Maty died of cancer and even during her struggle to get a diagnosis, Jorge Soto was in a lab in Silicon Valley working on an invention to make cancer easier to detect.


SOTO: Today, cancer detection happens mainly when symptoms appear; that is in stage three or four. And I believe that is too late. It is too expensive for our families. It is too expensive for humanity. It not only cost us billions of dollars, but it also cost us the people we love. One out of three people sitting in this audience will be diagnosed with some type of cancer, and one out of four will die because of it.

RAZ: So how do we change those numbers? Because the story they now tell is that you or someone close to you will get this disease. So we're going to spend this hour looking at where we are in the fight against cancer, and how a whole new way of thinking about it could change how we treat it, maybe even live with it, more like a chronic disease than a fatal one.

SOTO: I think, in general in the next 10 to 15 years, cancer, it will be a very controllable disease. It will be a condition like HIV or diabetes. It is not good news, but it is not tragic news.

RAZ: So to get to that point, Jorge Soto and a team of scientists are working on a way to give cancer patients the one thing his aunt didn't have - time. Here's more from Jorge's TED Talk.


SOTO: Today, the majority of people still don't have access to early cancer detection methods, even though we know that catching cancer early is basically the closest thing we have two a silver bullet cure against it. We know that we can change this in our lifetime, and that is why my team and I have decided to begin this journey; this journey to try to make cancer detection at the early stages easier, cheaper, smarter and more accessible than ever before. The context, of course, is that we're living at a time where technology is disrupting our present at exponential rates. And based on recent scientific discoveries, we believe that we have found a reliable and accurate way of detecting several types of cancer at the very early stages through a blood sample. We do it by detecting a set of very small molecules that secrete freely in our blood called microRNAs.

RAZ: So microRNAs - these are basically tiny molecules that are associated with specific cells and tissues in our bodies. Scientists first discovered this in 1993.

SOTO: So, for example, there are set of microRNAs that should only be found in the heart, a set of microRNAs that should only be found in the liver and so on.

RAZ: And until pretty recently...

SOTO: ...That's what we knew. But in 2008...

RAZ: In 2008, Scientists discovered that damage to specific parts of the body releases specific microRNAs into the bloodstream.

SOTO: For example, microRNA-1, that's the heart microRNA.

RAZ: If that microRNA pattern is floating around in your blood...

SOTO: ...That means that there's a problem with heart, and the heart cells are being broken apart.

RAZ: So microRNA is like - it's like this little bubble inside of your bloodstream that's saying wait, I have this information, you may want to know it.

SOTO: Yeah. I shouldn't be here.

RAZ: But there's a problem with microRNAs.

SOTO: You cannot detect them with existing technology.

RAZ: At least not easily.

SOTO: The technology today that detects microRNAs are either extremely expensive, like a sequencer, and they require highly trained scientists.

RAZ: So Jorge and his team are working on a new way to test for microRNAs, these very small biomarkers that could indicate cancer in its early stages.


SOTO: We believe that we have found a way to do so. And this is the first time that we're sharing in public. Let me do a demonstration.

RAZ: OK, so just to pause here - what Jorge did on the TED stage was very visual. So I'm just going to interrupt his flow for a moment to describe it.


SOTO: Imagine that next time you go to your doctor and do your next standard blood test.

RAZ: So imagine a simple blood test at your next doctor's visit.

SOTO: Any neighborhood lab can do it.


SOTO: And puts it in a standardized well plate like this one.

RAZ: So you take your blood sample and you drop it into 96 tiny wells on a specially designed plastic lab plate. It's about the size of an iPhone 6 Plus.


SOTO: Each well of these plates...

RAZ: And each well is coated with a specific biochemical agent.


SOTO: ...That is looking for a specific microRNA, acting like a trap that closes only when the microRNA is present in the sample.

RAZ: The biochemical agents in those traps are specially designed to react in the presence of specific microRNAs. So after you've dropped in the blood sample, you take that plate...


SOTO: You put the plate inside a device like this one.

RAZ: He shows a sealed device, it's about the size of a crockpot.

SOTO: It's just creating heating conditions and luminosity conditions.

RAZ: The conditions for a chemical reaction to begin. And then, a step that makes this technology cheaper and easier than anything out there.


SOTO: And then you can put your smartphone on top of it. A smartphone is a connected computer. And it's also a camera; good enough for our purpose.

RAZ: A smartphone sitting on top of the device runs an app.

SOTO: That is taking pictures.


SOTO: The smartphone is taking pictures.

RAZ: And the smartphone can detect which of those biochemical wells start to glow if specific microRNAs are trapped.

SOTO: It takes pictures every minute.


SOTO: And it's comparing which ones are shining, how much and how fast and sending that information to our servers.

RAZ: A smartphone uses cloud data to analyze the photos. There's no highly trained doctor that needs to interpret the data. And it means that this test can go anywhere a smart phone can.


SOTO: This entire process lasts around 60 minutes. But when the process is over, this inside is a real sample where we just detected pancreatic cancer.


RAZ: OK, this was amazing to see. It's incredible, but for now, the machine can only test for a few very specific cancers. And then there's another obstacle, which is that microRNAs don't just appear in blood when you have cancer, they can also show up...

SOTO: If you had, let's say, a hard party last night.

RAZ: When you have a hangover.

SOTO: You will find the microRNAs circulating. So we need to understand...

RAZ: Or a broken arm or a cold - microRNAs will be detectable. But Jorge's test is getting better and better at figuring out the difference. And if the tests continue to show encouraging results, it could be a standard part of your annual physical within the next three years.

SOTO: And I don't think it will replace 100 percent all the other screening tests that we have today in three years, but it will be much more available. And let's say in the next 10 years, medicine will change forever. It will not be reactive, it will be prevented.


SOTO: Let me say very clearly that we are at the very early stages. But so far, we have been able to successfully identify the microRNA pattern of pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer and hepatic cancer. And currently, we're doing a clinical trial in collaboration with the German Cancer Research Center with 200 women for breast cancer.


SOTO: It is single, noninvasive, accurate and affordable test that has the potential to dramatically change how cancer procedures and diagnostics have been done. Since we are looking for the microRNA patterns in your blood at any given time, you don't need to know which cancer you're looking for. You don't need to have symptoms. You only need one milliliter of blood and a relatively simple array of tools. And I am certain that in the very near future, because of this and other breakthroughs that we're seeing every day in life sciences, the way we see cancer will radically change. It will give us a chance of detecting it early, understanding it better and finding a cure. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Jorge Soto. He's an early detection cancer engineer. His company is called Miroculus. Their cancer detection technology, by the way, will be made open source. You can see Jorge's talk at ted.com. More ideas about fighting cancer in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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