11:22
TEDGlobal 2014

Jorge Soto: The future of early cancer detection?

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Along with a crew of technologists and scientists, Jorge Soto is developing a simple, noninvasive, open-source test that looks for early signs of multiple forms of cancer. Onstage at TEDGlobal 2014, he demonstrates a working prototype of the mobile platform for the first time.

- Cancer technologist
Jorge Soto is helping develop a simple, noninvasive test that identifies cancer. Full bio

Almost a year ago,
00:12
my aunt started suffering back pains.
00:14
She went to see the doctor
00:16
and they told her it was a normal injury
00:18
for someone who had been playing tennis
00:20
for almost 30 years.
00:22
They recommended that she do some therapy,
00:24
but after a while she wasn't feeling better,
00:26
so the doctors decided to do further tests.
00:29
They did an x-ray
00:32
and discovered an injury in her lungs,
00:33
and at the time they thought that the injury
00:35
was a strain in the muscles and tendons
00:37
between her ribs,
00:38
but after a few weeks of treatment,
00:39
again her health wasn't getting any better.
00:41
So finally, they decided to do a biopsy,
00:45
and two weeks later,
00:49
the results of the biopsy came back.
00:50
It was stage 3 lung cancer.
00:53
Her lifestyle was almost free of risk.
00:58
She never smoked a cigarette,
01:01
she never drank alcohol,
01:02
and she had been playing sports
01:04
for almost half her life.
01:05
Perhaps, that is why it took them almost six months
01:07
to get her properly diagnosed.
01:11
My story might be, unfortunately,
01:14
familiar to most of you.
01:16
One out of three people sitting in this audience
01:18
will be diagnosed with some type of cancer,
01:21
and one out of four
01:24
will die because of it.
01:25
Not only did that cancer diagnosis
01:28
change the life of our family,
01:30
but that process of going
01:32
back and forth with new tests,
01:34
different doctors describing symptoms,
01:37
discarding diseases over and over,
01:39
was stressful and frustrating,
01:42
especially for my aunt.
01:44
And that is the way cancer diagnosis has been done
01:46
since the beginning of history.
01:49
We have 21st-century medical treatments and drugs
01:51
to treat cancer,
01:54
but we still have 20th-century procedures
01:56
and processes for diagnosis, if any.
01:58
Today, most of us have to wait for symptoms
02:02
to indicate that something is wrong.
02:05
Today, the majority of people still don't have access
02:07
to early cancer detection methods,
02:10
even though we know
02:12
that catching cancer early
02:14
is basically the closest thing we have
02:16
to a silver bullet cure against it.
02:17
We know that we can change this in our lifetime,
02:21
and that is why my team and I
02:23
have decided to begin this journey,
02:25
this journey to try to make cancer detection
02:27
at the early stages
02:29
and monitoring the appropriate
response at the molecular level
02:31
easier, cheaper, smarter
02:34
and more accessible than ever before.
02:38
The context, of course,
02:42
is that we're living at a time
02:43
where technology is disrupting our present
02:45
at exponential rates,
02:46
and the biological realm is no exception.
02:48
It is said today that biotech is advancing
02:51
at least six times faster than the growth rate
02:53
of the processing power of computers.
02:55
But progress in biotech
02:58
is not only being accelerated,
02:59
it is also being democratized.
03:01
Just as personal computers or the Internet
03:03
or smartphones leveled the playing field
03:06
for entrepreneurship, politics or education,
03:08
recent advances have leveled it
up for biotech progress as well,
03:11
and that is allowing
03:15
multidisciplinary teams like ours
03:16
to try to tackle and look at these problems
03:18
with new approaches.
03:21
We are a team of scientists and technologists
03:23
from Chile, Panama,
03:26
Mexico, Israel and Greece,
03:29
and based on recent scientific discoveries,
03:32
we believe that we have found
03:35
a reliable and accurate way
03:36
of detecting several types of cancer
03:39
at the very early stages through a blood sample.
03:41
We do it by detecting a set of very small molecules
03:44
that circulate freely in our blood
03:47
called microRNAs.
03:48
To explain what microRNAs are
03:51
and their important role in cancer,
03:53
I need to start with proteins,
03:56
because when cancer is present in our body,
03:57
protein modification is observed
04:00
in all cancerous cells.
04:01
As you might know,
04:03
proteins are large biological molecules
04:04
that perform different functions within our body,
04:06
like catalyzing metabolic reactions
04:09
or responding to stimuli
04:11
or replicating DNA,
04:13
but before a protein is expressed or produced,
04:14
relevant parts of its genetic code
04:17
present in the DNA
04:19
are copied into the messenger RNA,
04:21
so this messenger RNA
04:25
has instructions on how to build a specific protein,
04:27
and potentially it can build hundreds of proteins,
04:31
but the one that tells them when to build them
04:33
and how many to build
04:36
are microRNAs.
04:38
So microRNAs are small molecules
04:41
that regulate gene expression.
04:42
Unlike DNA, which is mainly fixed,
04:45
microRNAs can vary depending on internal
04:47
and environmental conditions at any given time,
04:49
telling us which genes are actively
expressed at that particular moment.
04:52
And that is what makes microRNAs
04:55
such a promising biomarker for cancer,
04:57
because as you know,
04:59
cancer is a disease of altered gene expression.
05:01
It is the uncontrolled regulation of genes.
05:05
Another important thing to consider
05:08
is that no two cancers are the same,
05:10
but at the microRNA level, there are patterns.
05:12
Several scientific studies have shown
05:15
that abnormal microRNA expression levels
05:18
varies and creates a unique, specific pattern
05:21
for each type of cancer,
05:24
even at the early stages,
05:26
reflecting the progression of the disease,
05:27
and whether it's responding to medication
05:29
or in remission,
05:31
making microRNAs a perfect,
05:32
highly sensitive biomarker.
05:35
However, the problem with microRNAs
05:38
is that we cannot use existing DNA-based technology
05:41
to detect them in a reliable way,
05:43
because they are very short sequences of nucleotides,
05:46
much smaller than DNA.
05:49
And also, all microRNAs are
very similar to each other,
05:51
with just tiny differences.
05:54
So imagine trying to differentiate two molecules,
05:56
extremely similar, extremely small.
05:59
We believe that we have found a way to do so,
06:02
and this is the first time that we've shown it in public.
06:05
Let me do a demonstration.
06:07
Imagine that next time you go to your doctor
06:10
and do your next standard blood test,
06:12
a lab technician extracts a total RNA,
06:14
which is quite simple today,
06:17
and puts it in a standard
96-well plate like this one.
06:19
Each well of these plates
06:21
has specific biochemistry that we assign,
06:23
that is looking for a specific microRNA,
06:26
acting like a trap that closes
06:28
only when the microRNA is present in the sample,
06:30
and when it does, it will shine with green color.
06:32
To run the reaction,
06:35
you put the plate inside a device like this one,
06:36
and then you can put your smartphone on top of it.
06:40
If we can have a camera here
06:43
so you can see my screen.
06:46
A smartphone is a connected computer
06:49
and it's also a camera,
06:51
good enough for our purpose.
06:53
The smartphone is taking pictures,
06:59
and when the reaction is over,
07:01
it will send the pictures
07:02
to our online database for processing
07:03
and interpretation.
07:06
This entire process lasts around 60 minutes,
07:07
but when the process is over,
07:10
wells that shine are matched
with the specific microRNAs
07:12
and analyzed in terms of how much and how fast
07:15
they shine.
07:17
And then, when this entire process is over,
07:19
this is what happens.
07:23
This chart is showing the specific microRNAs
07:25
present in this sample
07:28
and how they reacted over time.
07:29
Then, if we take this specific pattern of microRNA
07:32
of this person's samples
07:34
and compare it with existing scientific documentation
07:36
that correlates microRNA patterns
07:39
with a specific presence of a disease,
07:41
this is how pancreatic cancer looks like.
07:46
This inside is a real sample
07:49
where we just detected pancreatic cancer.
07:52
(Applause)
07:55
Another important aspect of this approach
08:04
is the gathering and mining of data in the cloud,
08:06
so we can get results in real time
08:08
and analyze them with our contextual information.
08:10
If we want to better understand
08:13
and decode diseases like cancer,
08:15
we need to stop treating them
08:17
as acute, isolated episodes,
08:18
and consider and measure everything
08:20
that affects our health on a permanent basis.
08:22
This entire platform is a working prototype.
08:27
It uses state-of-the-art molecular biology,
08:31
a low-cost, 3D-printed device,
08:34
and data science
08:37
to try to tackle one of humanity's
toughest challenges.
08:39
Since we believe early cancer detection
08:43
should really be democratized,
08:45
this entire solution costs at least 50 times less
08:47
than current available methods,
08:49
and we know that the community can help us
08:51
accelerate this even more,
08:53
so we're making the design of the device
08:54
open-source.
08:56
(Applause)
08:59
Let me say very clearly
09:07
that we are at the very early stages,
09:09
but so far, we have been able
09:11
to successfully identify the microRNA pattern
09:13
of pancreatic cancer, lung cancer,
09:15
breast cancer and hepatic cancer.
09:19
And currently, we're doing a clinical trial
09:22
in collaboration with the
German Cancer Research Center
09:25
with 200 women for breast cancer.
09:28
(Applause)
09:31
This is the single non-invasive,
09:35
accurate and affordable test
09:38
that has the potential to dramatically change
09:40
how cancer procedures and diagnostics
09:43
have been done.
09:44
Since we're looking for the microRNA patterns
09:46
in your blood at any given time,
09:48
you don't need to know
which cancer you're looking for.
09:50
You don't need to have any symptoms.
09:52
You only need one milliliter of blood
09:55
and a relatively simple array of tools.
09:57
Today, cancer detection happens mainly
10:01
when symptoms appear.
10:04
That is, at stage 3 or 4,
10:06
and I believe that is too late.
10:08
It is too expensive for our families.
10:10
It is too expensive for humanity.
10:12
We cannot lose the war against cancer.
10:15
It not only costs us billions of dollars,
10:18
but it also costs us the people we love.
10:20
Today, my aunt, she's fighting bravely
10:23
and going through this process
with a very positive attitude.
10:26
However, I want fights like this
10:29
to become very rare.
10:32
I want to see the day
10:33
when cancer is treated easily
10:34
because it can be routinely diagnosed
10:36
at the very early stages,
10:38
and I'm certain
10:40
that in the very near future,
10:42
because of this
10:44
and other breakthroughs that we are seeing
10:45
every day in the life sciences,
10:46
the way we see cancer
10:48
will radically change.
10:50
It will give us the chance of detecting it early,
10:52
understanding it better,
10:54
and finding a cure.
10:56
Thank you very much.
10:58
(Applause)
11:00

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About the Speaker:

Jorge Soto - Cancer technologist
Jorge Soto is helping develop a simple, noninvasive test that identifies cancer.

Why you should listen
Last year, electrical engineer Jorge Soto co-founded mirOculus with a group of fellow Singularity University students to push forward the development of a bold new test for cancer -- one that functions by looking for microRNA in the bloodstream, which could point to the presence of different types of cancer at very early stages. It's early stages for the device as well, but initial trials are promising. The open source device debuted publicly at the TEDGlobal conference in 2014.
 
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.
More profile about the speaker
Jorge Soto | Speaker | TED.com