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Cancer tech can extend our lives

By Brian S Hall / September 18, 2014

Cancer tech can extend our lives

Cancer is scary–seriously scary. Despite decades of leading medical research and billions of dollars spent, cancer remains an all-too-common killer. Well over half-a-million people will die from cancer in the United States just this year. More than 1.5 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2014.

Technology can help. Even our smartphones. Yes, really. In 2011, the World Health Organization brandished smartphones as a “carcinogenic hazard,” no different than lead or engine exhaust. This announcement begat a litany of sensational stories on the cancer-causing impact of smartphones.

In fact, smartphones may prove vital in our battle against cancer. Smartphone apps help educate users about cancer prevention, warn us about possible toxins in our food or cleaning agents, and make it practical for us to track and document changes in our health. There’s much more on the way. Web-connected sensors will make us aware of the air and water, alerting us at the first sign of trouble.

Below are some great examples of how our newest tech, including the humble smartphone app, are helping us to combat this scourge.

The food you eat

GoodGuide is a mobile app/website that rates common household products, like toothpaste or makeup, according to their health, environment, and societal impact. Are there toxins in your Crest? What goes into that Revlon mascara? Is there adequate nutritional value in that breakfast cereal?Scan the product’s barcode with your smartphone and get the GoodGuide score. It’s that easy.

The air you breathe

Have you ever taken a breathalyzer? Instead of a test to determine if you’ve been drinking too much, Menssana Research has developed breath tests to determine if you might have cancer. Just breathe into their BreathScanner, a mobile point-of-care device that can be used anywhere there is an Internet connection. During two minutes of breathing, Menssana’s cloud-based algorithms identify marks of oxidative stress and disease, analyzing the ‘data’ captured from your breath for volatile organic compounds.


This device could help identify the presence of cancers at a much earlier stage, which could prove vital in extending life. The BreathScanner system has not been approved by the FDA, though it is currently being used in several clinical trials. In addition to breast cancer and lung cancer, Menssana claims their test has accurately identified patients with pulmonary tuberculosis.

The water you drink

Super-sensory polymers loaded with tiny embedded sensors can effectively “sniff out” extremely small traces of cancer-causing carcinogens in the air or water. Already, tests of these sensor-laden materials have been used to detect polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are commonly found in industrial emissions, automotive exhaust, charcoal, and other fossil fuels. PAHs can cause lung cancer, stomach cancer, and skin cancer, among other ailments.

These new polymers can detect the carcinogens on a parts-per-trillion level. That’s the equivalent of a single drop inside 500,000 barrels of water. Standard processes today measure contaminants on a parts-per-billion level at best, which is one drop per 500 barrels of water. These super sensitive “sniffing” materials are only in a few tests outside the labs. However, as they become commercialized, it’s easy to envision these polymers sending smartphone alerts to everyone within an affected area at the instant they detect the presence of carcinogens. As more people have smartphones, particularly in developing economies, this could save countless lives and untold medical costs.

Your skin

The MoleScope is designed to help us regular folk identify the possible presence of skin cancers much sooner. This is vital. If detected early, survival rates of skin cancers are as high as 98%. If discovered late, this number can fall to just 16%.

Right now, when a patient eventually discovers what they suspect is a cancerous mole, they typically go see their general practitioner, who is very often not skilled in determining whether a mole is cancerous or not. They send images of the mole off to an expert. The time from detection to confirmation is too long.


The $100 MoleScope device should change this. The small device connects to your smartphone. It takes pictures of potentially cancerous moles at a near-microscopic level, which can then be sent to specialists pretty much anywhere over the world via an integrated app thanks to the cloud. The relatively low price of the device and its ease of use should enable those at risk for skin cancer to take corrective action much quicker.

Your head

Personal devices that connect to a smartphone are necessarily small. However, some cancer tech is big — even when its work is small. Proton-beam technology is a new form or radiotherapy used to eradicate tumors. Like today’s standard radiation therapy, proton beams are similarly designed to destroy cancerous cells. Proton beam therapy, however, can be far better directed and deposited within the specific tissues that are cancerous. This is especially useful for tumors in the head.

It works like this: Traditional radiation therapy gets deposited into normal tissues as it makes its way to the targeted spot. This harmful effect is compounded by the fact that by radiating non-cancerous areas, its effective energy potency is reduced as it makes its way to the tumor. This means still more radiation is needed to combat the tumor. Proton-beam therapy is far more targeted and much more optimized.

Your future

Cancer remains deadly and scary, touching young and old, rich and poor, those in big cities and idyllic pastoral communities. In the US, cancer still accounts for nearly 1 in 4 deaths. Cancer is not fair, cancer does not care, and sadly, more than forty years into the “war on cancer,” only a few battles have been won. Luckily, our very best tech is helping us continue the fight from prevention to cure. Some of it will likely be the stuff of today’s science fiction.

Lab-generated replacement organs are almost certain to be in our future. This can help us combat cancer through surgery. British scientists recently produced a working thymus, an important part of the body’s immune system (albeit, for a mouse). The techniques, however, may prove transferable. If so, organs impacted by cancer could, in theory, be replaced by a new, healthy ones, created in the lab.

According to Professor Clare Blackburn, from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who led the team of scientists, “The ability to grow replacement organs from cells in the lab is one of the ‘holy grails’ in regenerative medicine. We’ve managed to produce an artificial cell type that, when transplanted, can form a fully organized and functional organ.” It’s crazy, but it just might work. When combined with cancer-preventing apps, early-detection devices, and countless other cancer-tech innovations, we could see a significant bump in the average life expectancy.

Learn more about cancer tech and other breakthroughs in the healthcare industry by reading our mHealth Trend Report.