MIT scientists have developed a system capable of locating ingestible implants inside the body using a low-power wireless signal from outside the body.
The system, ReMix, is basically an “in-body GPS.”
Thanks to its ability to track tumors, take images, and even deliver drugs, ReMix could one day revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry, as well as the treatment of some types of aggressive cancers.
Developed by researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), ReMix is a technical masterpiece in itself. Its complex algorithms combined with low-power wireless signals allows it to track the location of ingestible implants with centimeter-level accuracy.
So far, the CSAIL researchers team led by professor Dina Katabi tested the ReMix on animals. First, they implanted a small sensor in the body of the animal and used wireless technology that reflects radio signals to track it. While the sensor itself didn’t transmit any signal, nor did it have a battery, it reflected the signal transmitted by the wireless device outside the body.
Here’s where the scientists run into a challenge: wireless signals can bounce off many parts of a human body. For comparison, the signals reflecting off the skin are 100 million times more powerful than the signals of any implantable markers. To solve this issue, scientists developed a small semiconductor that helps to filter out the frequencies coming from the patient’s skin.
For now, the system needs to be fine-tuned, before it can be used in a clinical setting, Katabi says – its location accuracy would need to have a margin of error closer to a couple of millimeters versus centimeters.
Based on the success of these tests, ReMix holds great potential. According to scientists, the system could innovate proton therapy, in which a tumor is bombarded with beams of magnet-controlled protons. The protons are a vehicle for radiation doses and go directly to the targeted place in the body, without harming healthy organs.
Because tumors shift positions during the radiation process, leaving healthy organs exposed to radiation, this therapy is only reserved for certain types of cancer such as prostate, head and neck, breast, spine, lung, and gastrointestinal tract.
With a small marker like ReMix, doctors could track the tumor in real-time and steer the beam into the right position. Moving forward, the team hopes to combine wireless signals with other data such as MRI scans to hone the system’s accuracy, but also to create a more efficient algorithm that can sense subtle differences.
“We want a model that’s technically feasible, while still complex enough to accurately represent the human body,” said PhD student Deepak Vasisht, lead author on the new paper. “If we want to use this technology on actual cancer patients one day, it will have to come from better modeling a person’s physical structure.”
The ReMix would also make proton therapy widely available and thus less expensive for patients. Currently, there are only about 100 proton therapy centers globally and treatments cost anywhere between $30,000 and $120,000.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning represent a huge part of the CSAIL researchers’ work – they have recently been working on improving electronic health records using AI. But the creation of ReMix is further proof that cancer treatment is heading toward the smart tech era. Biotech startups, big pharma, and renowned academic laboratories such as MIT are pushing the envelope on innovation more than ever.
AI systems capable of distinguishing cancer subtypes and tailoring the treatment based on a patient’s individual genetic response are making their way into hospitals around the world. It’s only a matter of time until the one-size-fits-all invasive therapies will become a thing of the past.