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Researchers confirm the first case of bone cancer in dinosaurs

Evidence is mounting that, despite living hundreds of millions of years ago, dinosaurs were not strangers to cancer.

An image and computerized scan of the bone.
Image credits Royal Ontario Museum / McMaster University.

Researchers have uncovered a new dinosaur fossil that seems to have suffered from a severe form of bone cancer around 77 million years ago. The findings help underscore the fact that cancer is in no ways a modern affliction — or a human-only one — and points to the role disease and other medical conditions play in the wild.

The bad bone

The research is based on the fossils of a Centrosaurus apertus, a herbivore that lived in the Canadian stretches during late Cretaceous (76 to 75 million years ago). Its life, at least during its latter parts, was probably not very enjoyable at all, as this dinosaur had to contend with a very aggressive case of bone cancer in one of its hind legs.

Not only would this make it difficult and painful for the dinosaur to move around — either to forage or to evade/fight off predators — but the team studying its fossil believes the cancer was malignant. If so, it means it could spread to its other tissues, mainly its internal organs.

The cancer in its leg bones was so advanced, that at first the team was convinced they were looking at a bone that had healed at sutured itself after a fracture. It was only after the bone was studied in depth using a host of techniques, including radiology and orthopedic surgery, that they found a massive, aggressive tumor inside the bone.

“Diagnosis of aggressive cancer like this in dinosaurs has been elusive and requires medical expertise and multiple levels of analysis to properly identify,” Dr. Mark Crowther, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

“Here, we show the unmistakable signature of advanced bone cancer in 76-million-year-old horned dinosaur—the first of its kind. It’s very exciting.”

The disease had progressed to an “advanced stage” by the time the animal died and likely made it very difficult for it to move. Still, it’s not all tragedy and woe with the dino: his remains were found in a “bone bed” along with many others from the same species. The team believes we’re looking at a pack of C. apertus that died in a flood. From the lack of bite marks on the diseased dino, and from his final resting place alongside his family and friends, it’s safe to assume that the herd lifestyle allowed it to survive despite his condition.

“The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage. The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time,” adds Dr. David Evans, corresponding author of the study.

“The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve found evidence of tumors in dinosaur fossils, but it is the first confirmed case of bone cancer we’ve seen in such an animal.

The finding goes to show that even the mightiest animals sometimes have to bow in the face of disease. But it also shows how far we’ve come: dinosaurs, for all their might and long reign, were at the mercy of such conditions, and we’re starting to learn how to identify, manage, and cure them.

The paper “First case of osteosarcoma in a dinosaur: a multimodal diagnosis” has been published in the journal The Lancet.

A rare and painful tumor that affects humans was found in a 66-million-year-old dinosaur

Hadrosaurs roamed in packs. Credit: Kobayashi Y., et al, Scientific Reports.

Israeli researchers at Tel Aviv University investigated some peculiar cavities in the tail fossils of a hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur that was excavated from Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park. Much to their amazement, these cavities were nearly identical to those formed in humans as a result of a rare, cancer-like disease.

Dinosaurs got sick too

The dinosaur fossils were first investigated using high-resolution computer tomography (CT) scans, which enabled the researchers to form a highly accurate image of the hadrosaur’s tail vertebrae without actually disturbing the specimen. When the CT scans were compared to the bones of two humans, known to suffer from a benign tumor called Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH), the researchers were amazed by how well the cavities matched.

“The micro-CT produces very high-resolution imaging, up to a few microns,” Dr. Hila May of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University said in a statement. “We scanned the dinosaur vertebrae and created a computerized 3D reconstruction of the tumor and the blood vessels that fed it. The micro and macro analyses confirmed that it was, in fact, LCH. This is the first time this disease has been identified in a dinosaur.”

LCH causes distinct lesions in the bones and is sometimes described as a rare form of cancer, although this is a somewhat controversial claim since the disease seems to appear and disappear spontaneously. Most of these tumors, which can be extremely painful to live with, appear out of the blue in the bones of children aged 2-10 years. However, most of the cases disappear in time without any intervention.

Hadrosaurs are a kind of duck-billed dinosaur and one of the most common herbivores of the Cretaceous. Their fossils are also among the most common in the record. What’s more, they’re generally so well-preserved that paleontologists have been able to calculate the dinosaurs’ muscle mass, learning that hadrosaurs were very muscular, likely having the ability to outrun predators. There’s even a so-called “Dakota” specimen, which was unearthed in such good condition that it looks more like a mummy than a fossil — researchers were even able to analyze its ligaments, tendons, and what may be internal organs through a CT scan. 

Now, this new study shows that these dinosaurs may have been affected by the same diseases as humans. Previously, other studies found that T. rex suffered from gout and that iguanodons could get osteoarthritis.

Many animals are affected by disease and there’s no reason to believe dinosaurs were any different. However, finding evidence of ancient diseases in dinosaurs is an entirely different matter due to the many challenges involved in identifying telltale signs of in the fossil record.

Photograph of the larger hadrosaur vertebra in lateral view (left) and caudal view (right). The space that contained the overgrowth opens to the caudal surface of the vertebra. Credit: Assaf Ehrenreich, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University.

The authors of the new study claim that their new findings will help improve our understanding of paleopathology, a field of science focused on studying disease and infection in the fossil record.

Although extremely rare, signs of disease in dinosaurs could also provide invaluable insights into how diseases evolved alongside animals. Many diseases affecting humans first appear in animals — among them the now-famous Wuhan coronavirus, which likely jumped to humans from snakes.

“These kinds of studies, which are now possible thanks to innovative technology, make an important and interesting contribution to evolutionary medicine, a relatively new field of research that investigates the development and behavior of diseases over time,” notes Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University. “We are trying to understand why certain diseases survive evolution with an eye to deciphering what causes them in order to develop new and effective ways of treating them.”

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports.

An AI walks into a hospital — and it’s really good at detecting tumors

A novel approach combines advanced imaging with artificial intelligence to offer real-time tumor detection.

During cancer surgery, surgeons sometimes extract tissue samples for lab analysis. This is an important step that allows medics to perform more accurate diagnoses and direct the course of treatment, which may include a subsequent surgery to remove the tumor.

The new study compared the ability of an AI to detect tumors in these samples with the ability of competent pathologists. The AI-based diagnosis software was 94.6% accurate, compared to 93.9% for the pathologist interpretation. It also works in near-real-time, with the diagnosis taking little over 2 minutes.

Over 1 million brain samples are analyzed in the US alone every year, a process that is time-, resource-, and labor-intensive. To add even more to this problem, vacancies in neurology departments are not uncommon.

With this in mind, neuroscientists Daniel Orringer and his colleagues set out to develop a new diagnostic tool. It combines a powerful optical imaging technique, called stimulated Raman histology (SRH), with an artificially intelligent deep neural network. During surgery, images are acquired through SRH and then fed to the AI algorithm, which makes the assessment in 150 seconds.

Pathologists are generally accurate, but this approach can greatly reduce the time and effort needed for diagnosis. As an added bonus, the AI is also capable of detecting features that can escape the human eye.

“As surgeons, we’re limited to acting on what we can see; this technology allows us to see what would otherwise be invisible, to improve speed and accuracy in the [operating room], and reduce the risk of misdiagnosis,” Orringer, the senior author of the paper, said in a press statement. “With this imaging technology, cancer operations are safer and more effective than ever before.”

The researchers trained the AI using more than 2.5 million samples, classifying them in different categories that represent the most common types of brain tumors. The algorithm was then tested for efficiency on 278 brain tumor and epilepsy patients, and its results compared to that of human doctors. Neither the AI nor the pathologists are perfect but there’s an upside to this: the errors that the AI did were different from the ones that humans made. This suggests that, should a pathologist and an AI analyze the same tissue sample, they might come very close to 100% accuracy. This means that the AI could be used both to complement the lack of neuroscientists or to complement them and improve the results.

Slowly but surely, AI is starting to enter the medical room — and it can make a real difference.

The study has been published in Nature Medicine.

Pamela Shavaun Scott and a life-sized 3D printed version of her skull. Her tumour rests right about where her right index finger is. Image: Makezine

Man 3-D prints his wife’s tumor and saves her life

ZME Science has reported extensively on how 3-D printing is being implemented in the medical sector with some fantastic results. Yet, the real revolutionary thing about 3D printing – whether used for product prototyping, printing prostheses or spare parts on the International Space Station – is that anyone can use it.

Such is the story of Michael Balzer who made a 3D model of his wive’s skull, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor, printed it, then sent it to renowned surgeons all over the country. Eventually, a doctor used the skull to prepare for a delicate, novel operation and removed the woman’s tumor with minimal invasion, as opposed to other methods. Had it not been for Balzer’s creative thinking, his wife would’ve likely gone blind in one eye, if not lost her life.

Eventually, a doctor used the skull to prepare for a delicate, novel operation and removed the woman’s tumor with minimal invasion, as opposed to other methods. Had it not been for Balzer’s creative thinking, his wife would’ve likely gone blind in one eye, if not lost her life.

Medicine in the hands of common people

Pamela Shavaun Scott and a life-sized 3D printed version of her skull. Her tumour rests right about where her right index finger is. Image: Makezine

Pamela Shavaun Scott and a life-sized 3D printed version of her skull. Her tumor rests right about where her right index finger is. Image: Makezine

Balzer and his wife, Pamela Shavaun Scott, are no strangers to health problems. Balzer,  a former Air Force technical instructor and software engineer, lost his job after struggling with a long illness and Scott had her thyroid removed only a couple months prior to discovering the tumor.

It was the thyroid surgery that taught the couple how to approach their hardest moment together. Typically, the thyroid is removed by making a big cut in the throat which leaves a big and unaesthetic scar, followed by a long period of recovery. With proper diligence and research, the couple found doctors who used a novel procedure. They traveled from California to the Center for Robotic Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where a robotic arm carefully made minimal amounts of sharp cuts, otherwise impossible to make by a shaky human hand. This taught them the value of making use of the latest, cutting-edge technology out there and not going for the very first recommendation.

Yet, only a couple of months after the surgery Scott reported dreadful headaches. Fearing complications following the thyroid surgery, Balzer urged his wife to have an MRI scan- – she submitted. Disaster. Doctors found  a three-centimeter tumor lodged behind her left eye. The two were heart struck, but the doctors who made the consultation didn’t share their worry. They reported that such tumors were common among women and recommended Scott should have it checked again in a year. Balzer wasn’t convinced, and sought a second opinion – quite a few actually. He e-mailed the MRI scans to doctors around the country, who almost unanimously agreed the women should immediately schedule for surgery.

A few months later, Scott had another MRI. This time, the doctors’ reaction was different: they were appalled by what seemed an accelerated tumor growth, indicating a far more severe condition than initially diagnosed. However, when Balzer — a seasoned 3D designer — rendered his wive’s DICOM files (the standard digital format for medical imaging data) atop previous MRIs, he  found that the tumor hadn’t grown. The radiologist was just looking at it from another angle and it appeared bigger.

 “I thought, ‘why don’t we take it to the next level?’” Balzer says for Makerzine. “Let’s see what kind of tools are available so that I can take the DICOMs, which are 2D slices, and convert them into a 3D model.”

MRI scans stacked to reveal how large the tumour is. Credit: Makerzine

MRI scans stacked to reveal how large the tumor actually is. Credit: Makerzine

 

He then took the model and printed it to have a better idea of kind of treatment they could seek. Scott’s tumor, known as meningioma, sits somewhere beneath the brain. So to reach it and remove it, doctors have to saw the skull, literally uproot the brain, reach out under it and eject the tumor. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

Following such an operation, Scott would have stood at a considerable risk of losing her smell, taste or even sight, since nerves can easily become loose.

Desperate, Blazer send the 3D model to doctors across the country, looking for some alternative treatment. He was in luck, he found a surgeon in the same Pittsburgh research center where Scott had her thyroid removed. A neurosurgeon there agreed to consider a minimally invasive operation in which he would access the tumor through Scott’s left eyelid and remove it using a micro drill.

Blazer sent the doctor a few full-sized models of his wife’s skull, which the team there used it to practice and plan the procedure. Scott had the tumor removed at UPMC in May 2014 through a small opening above her left eye. Doctors noticed that the tumor had begun to entangle her optical nerve and had she waited more than six months for the surgery, she most certainly would have gone blind. Following the eight-hour long procedure, 95% of the tumor was extracted and no visible marks were left visible. It was a sound victory – one that goes beyond the husband and wife’s life story.

Blazer’s creative thinking was made famous in medical circles throughout the country. Unwittingly, he layered the groundwork for the Medical Innovation Lab in Austin, Texas — a lab that will use 3D printed models  to help plan procedures and to explain diagnoses to patients.

“What you can now do through 3D printing is like what you’re able to do in the software world: Rapid iteration, fail fast, get something to market quickly,” says Dr. Michael Patton, CEO of the Lab, which launched in October 2014 . “You can print the prototypes, and then you can print out model organs on which to test the products. You can potentially obviate the need for some animal studies, and you can do this proof of concept before extensive patient trials are conducted.”

Here’s how to print your own medical features, be it a skull, bone or even organs if you’ve had an MRI or CT scan.

  • Ask your doctor for the DICOM files
  • Download 3D slicer and use the Region Growing tool to segment the image
  • Extract the 3D mesh of the surface and save as STL
  • Use ParaView to simplify the mesh
  • Print .

Malaria protein that kills cancer to begin human trials in 2019

Scientists have in the past toyed with the idea of using a disease to fight cancer. Now, after identifying a malaria protein that binds to cancer cells and kills 95% of tumor types, human trials are expected to start within four years.

Malaria protein (green) binding to cancer cells. Image via Futuretimeline.

I doesn’t seem like it’s happening fast, but it is, in medical terms. Clinical trials take a lot of time, and there are several stages through which any proposed treatment has to pass – and even clinical trials have several stages which can take a lot of time. But this treatment promises to go through them quite fast, especially given its potential.

The researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver Coastal Health and the BC Cancer Agency initially discovered that a protein from malaria halted cancer spread in mice. Interestingly, the hints for this discovery were initially offered by scientists from the University of Copenhagen, where they were studying why pregnant women are so susceptible to malaria. They found that the mosquito-borne parasite produces a protein that binds to a particular type of sugar molecule in the placenta. You can read all about their find here.

This finding led to another: that same sugar molecule is also found in most cancers. This makes quite a lot of sense, because both cancers and placentas grow fast, pushing other processes out of their way. The researchers then thought that targeting this molecule can work against cancer – eliminating its growth fuel, and stopping cancer growth.

“Scientists have spent decades trying to find the biochemical similarities between placenta tissue and cancer, but we just didn’t have the technology to find it,” said project leader Mads Daugaard, an assistant professor at UBC. “When my colleagues discovered how malaria uses VAR2CSA to embed itself in the placenta, we immediately saw its potential to deliver cancer drugs in a precise, controlled way to tumours.”

The drug was already tested on mice that were implanted with three types of human tumours, and the results were very encouraging.

“This is an extraordinary finding that paves the way for targeting sugar molecules in pediatric and adulthood human cancer, and our groups are vigorously pursuing this possibility together,” said UBC professor Poul Sorensen, co-senior investigator on the study.

“There is some irony that a disease as destructive as malaria might be exploited to treat another dreaded disease,” said Ali Salanti, a professor of immunology and microbiology at the University of Copenhagen. “The biggest questions are whether it’ll work in the human body, and if the human body can tolerate the doses needed without developing side effects. But we’re optimistic, because the protein appears to only attach itself to a carbohydrate that is only found in the placenta and in cancer tumours in humans.”

At the very latest, human trials  will start in 2019. It may be a very big year.

Perfect microspheres were produced using 4 percent by weight of the polymer. (c) Mohammad Reza Abidian

Smart drug delivery via microcapsules could lead to safe cancer tumor treatment

Today, cancer is typically treated through highly invasive, painful and low efficiency treatments. Doctors resect the tumors, do radiation therapy, and then chemotherapy. This process is actually more stressful and painful to the patient than the cancer itself, but it does save lives sometimes. Scientists all over the world are hard at work developing alternative treatments, and a recent breakthrough by researchers at  Penn State  makes a significant contribution in this direction.

 Perfect microspheres were produced using 4 percent by weight of the polymer. (c) Mohammad Reza Abidian

Perfect microspheres were produced using 4 percent by weight of the polymer. (c) Mohammad Reza Abidian

Mohammad Reza Abidian, assistant professor of bioengineering, chemical engineering and materials science and engineering, along with colleagues designed tiny spherical microcapsules that are biodegredable and can be used for targeted treatment of cancer tumors.

Chemotherapy by intravenously inserting toxic drugs meant to kill the tumors. The big problem with chemo is that the procedure isn’t targeted, and the drugs need to be introduced through out the whole bloodstream affecting the whole body. Moreover, for the drugs to reach the tumor and work their magic, they need to  cross the blood brain barrier. This isn’t easily breached so high doses of the toxic drugs needs to be injected, resulting in even more collateral damage to the body.

“We are trying to develop a new method of drug delivery,” said Abidian. “Not intravenous delivery, but localized directly into the tumor site.”

Other methods have been tested to deliver  BCNU (bis-chloroethylnitrosourea) – the alkylating agent used in chemotherapy – directly into the brain. One such method involves  leaving wafers infused with the anti-tumor agent  in the brain after surgery, but when the drugs in these wafers run out you need to repeat surgery to get them out. Every surgery comes with hazards, besides adding a further complicated step in the treatment process (makes it more expensive), so this method hasn’t been to popular.

 This is a scanning electron micrograph of BCNU-loaded microspheres (black and white background) with 3D rendered images of brain cancers cells (yellow) and released BCNU (purple). (c) Mohammad Reza Abidian

This is a scanning electron micrograph of BCNU-loaded microspheres (black and white background) with 3D rendered images of brain cancers cells (yellow) and released BCNU (purple). (c) Mohammad Reza Abidian

Penn State researchers propose an alternate method of treatment. The BCNU agent has a half life in the body of 15 minutes, so insertion in the brain naturally implies that the compound needs to be protect somehow. Their solution is to wrap the BCNU inside biodegradable polymers of spherical shape, which can then be injected directly on the tumor site through the scalp. Now, the idea isn’t new – it’s been employed by other researchers before, however previous solutions involved microcapsules that weren’t uniform in size.

Hitting cancer right in the bull’s eye

It’s paramount for the drug to disperse in an uniform fashion, and this distribution is directly related to the shape. The more uniform the shape of the microcapsule, the better the drug distribution. The microcapsules designed by Abidian and fellows are almost perfectly spherical –  a height versus width ratio of 1.05. This means they can be used to  precisely control the time of drug release by altering polymer composition.

The microcapsules were made using a technique called electrojetting in which a solution (in our case, the  FDA-approved biodegradable polymer poly(lactic-co-glycolic) acid; the BCNU drug; and a solvent)  are rapidly ejected through a tiny nozzle with the system under a voltage as high as 20 kilovolts but with only microamperage.  Under the dissipated heat, the solvent in the solution quickly evaporates leaving behind the microcapsules that can take on the form of anything from a perfect sphere to a fiber, depending on the polymer concentration in the solution. A 3 to 4 percent  by weight solution of the polymer rendered the best results, however the researchers note that other shapes might interest manufactures for other applications.

 Microfibers were produced using 10 percent by weight solutions of the polymer. (c) Mohammad Reza Abidian

Microfibers were produced using 10 percent by weight solutions of the polymer. (c) Mohammad Reza Abidian

“Electrojetting is a low cost, versatile approach,” said Abidian. “We can produce drug-loaded micro/nano-spheres and fibers with same size, high drug-loading capacity and high drug-encapsulation efficiency.”

Promising smart drug delivery method

The drug delivery has yet to be tested in the lab, however the researchers made a mathematical simulation of the BCNU drug diffusion from the microcapsules. This helps in designing how much drug to include in each microcapsule and how long the microcapsules will deliver the required dosage. Trials on lab animals might begin shortly. Also important of note is that other drugs, besides BCNU, could be used for treating various afflictions.

ALSO READ: New method kills cancer with near-infrared light

Penn Research Indentifies Bone Tumor in 120,000-Year-Old Neandertal Rib

The first known case of a bone tumor has been discovered in a Neanderthal who lived about 120,000 years ago in what is now present-day Croatia. The bone samples come from the already famous cave/archaeological site Krapina, which now hosts a Neanderthal Museum.

micro ct scan krapina

MicroCT scan of Krapina 120.71 showing the deterioration of the bone inside the rib neck. (Courtesy of GW Weber, U. Vienna)

Bone tumors are exceptionally rare finds in fossils and archaeological records, with the previous earliest records being approximately 4.000 years old. Even in today’s world, cases of bone tumors are relatively rare.

Using a CT scan and an X-ray, researchers identified a fibrous dysplastic neoplasm – an abnormal bone growth where normal bone is replaced with fibrous bone tissue. Today, this is the most common form of benign bone tumor in humans. The tumor was located on a Neandertal left rib fragment that measured 30 mm (4 ½ inches) long. Judging by the size and shape of the fragment, the Neanderthal was probably a young male.

BoneTumorwebJoining Penn Museum Associate Curator and Paleoanthropologist Janet Monge on the research team were Morrie Kricun, Department of Radiology, University of Pennsylvania; Jakov Radovcic and Davorka Radovcic, Croatian Natural History Museum; Alan Mann, Department of Anthropology, Princeton University, and David Frayer, Department of Anthropology, University of Kansas. The confirmation of this tumor, Monge claims, has significant implications for archaeologists, anthropologists and geneticists studying the connections between Neanderthals and humans.

“This tumor may provide another link between Neandertals and modern peoples, links currently being reinforced with genetic and archaeological evidence. Part of our ancestry is indeed with Neandertals—we grow the same way in our bones and teeth and share the same diseases.”

Full study: Fibrous Dysplasia in a 120,000+ Year Old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia

The particles (brown) are coated with peptides (blue) that are cleaved by enzymes (green) found at the disease site

Detecting biomarkers in urine could allow for earlier cancer diagnosis

By detecting specific biomarkers (proteins) produced by cancer cells, physicians can diagnose a tumor, however these are so diluted in the bloodstream that only after they’re sufficiently present can they be observed. Usually this happens many years after the tumor had already the chance to develop. Now, scientists at MIT have proposed a novel method involving nanoparticles specially developed to interact with cancer biomarkers to multiply the latter sufficiently enough to become visible. This allow for a much earlier cancer diagnosis by analyzing urine samples.

Cancer cells often produce large quantities of enzymes called proteases or MMPs that cleave proteins into smaller fragments allowing  cancer cells to escape their original positions and spread through out the body, breaking the proteins of the extracellular matrix that would otherwise bind them in place.

Studying cancer signals

The particles (brown) are coated with peptides (blue) that are cleaved by enzymes (green) found at the disease site

The particles (brown) are coated with peptides (blue) that are cleaved by enzymes (green) found at the disease site. (c) Justin H. Lo

The  MIT team, working with researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, developed special nanoparticles which they coated with peptides (protein fragments) targeted by the MMP proteases. The modified nanoparticles were found to accumulate at tumor sites, before making their way through the leaky blood vessels that surround tumors. From here on hundreds of peptides are released from the nanoparticles  which accumulate in the kidneys and are excreted in the urine. Using mass spectrometry these can then be detected in the urine sample.

 “Instead of being dependent on the body to naturally shed biomarkers, you’re sampling the site of interest and causing biomarkers that you engineered to be released,” says Gambhir, who was not part of the research team,” said Sanjiv Gambhir, chairman of the Department of Radiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

There are numerous types of cancer however. The researchers thus designed their particles to express 10 different peptides, each of which is cleaved by a different one of the dozens of MMP proteases. Each is distinctly build in order to identify the various types of tumors.

To test their method, the scientists used the nanoparticles to detect the early stages of colorectal cancer in mice, and to monitor the progression of liver fibrosis. Typically this is done through a biopsy which is extremely complicated and requires surgery. The researchers found that they could offer more rapid feedback than biopsies. In ongoing studies, the team is studying the particles’ ability to measure tumor response to chemotherapy and to detect metastasis.

Findings were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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