Diagnosing cancer with a barcode-inspired test

Dana Al-Sulaiman, a recent postdoc with MIT’s Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women, has developed a cheap, minimally invasive diagnostic test for cancer.

Department of Mechanical Engineering

As Dana Al-Sulaiman peers into a microscope, a row of dots appears on a slide. These dots can help provide a cancer diagnosis. Al-Sulaiman was inspired by barcodes found on consumer products.

“I got the idea from my PhD supervisor, who said, ‘in the future you’ll be able to scan a diagnostic test like you’re scanning a barcode.’ I initially thought it was the far future, but it’s closer than I thought,” says Al-Sulaiman, who recently completed a postdoctoral year through MIT’s Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women. The fellowship program brings Saudi Arabian women scientists to MIT each year to collaborate with MIT faculty on research.

The current widely used techniques for cancer diagnosis, prognosis, and monitoring are either late-stage, inaccurate, or invasive. In contrast, Al-Sulaiman’s barcode-inspired method uses widely available materials to translate the results of liquid samples, such as urine or blood, into simple-to-read patterns.

Just as nasal swabs and liquid biopsies have allowed for widespread public screening in the fight against Covid-19, Al-Sulaiman believes simplifying cancer detection techniques can lead to cancer screening on a large scale, as well as non-invasive monitoring of disease progression and response to therapy. An affordable and easy-to-use tool like the barcode-inspired cancer diagnostic test could significantly increase life expectancies around the world, especially in countries with limited access to medical care.

Helping others with medical devices

Al-Sulaiman’s interest in making health care more accessible was inspired by spending her childhood summers visiting her great aunt’s pediatric clinic in Saudi Arabia.

“My aunt, Dr. Farida Alsulayman, was one of the first Saudi Arabian women to go abroad to study and the first Saudi female pediatrician” she says, “her approach still inspires a lot of her patients.”

Her aunt suffered from life-long back pain as the result of a childhood injury. While going on rounds together, Al-Sulaiman saw how that experience and the treatments she endured as a child impacted the way she spoke to her patients.

“My aunt made sure she was explaining the illnesses to the children in a way they could understand, not only the parents. The way that she would explain complex medical terms in simple language stood out to me,” she adds.

Inspired by her aunt, Al-Sulaiman might have gone on to become a pediatrician herself, but an internship with a local doctor while attending high school in Canada gave her a new vision. “I learned from him that you can create medical devices that can help many people at a time,” says Al-Sulaiman. “I realized I could use engineering and science to help a larger group of people, especially resource or location-limited people.”

Al-Sulaiman’s shift to bioengineering took her to the UK for a master's in biomedical engineering from Imperial College London. During her undergraduate research, Al-Sulaiman learned that early disease detection can not only increase patient survival but also reduce the economic burden associated with cancer treatment. This inspired her to investigate earlier and simpler cancer detection methods. Winning the Imperial College President’s PhD Scholarship allowed her pursue this dream, focusing on bioengineering hydrogel-based biosensors for cancer diagnostics.

A cheaper, less-invasive diagnosis

In fall 2020, the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women (IBK) brought Al-Sulaiman to MIT as a postdoc. 

“The IBK fellowship gave me the chance to try tackling the same problems from a different angle,” says Al-Sulaiman. Joining Professor Patrick Doyle’s lab in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering gave Al-Sulaiman the chance to learn a new set of skills. “I was interested in microfluidics-based technologies because they offer control at the size scale relevant to biological systems, and because smaller means cheaper these days.”

Going cheaper is important to Al-Sulaiman, since her aim is to detect much better biomarkers for cancer using technologies that are less invasive, widely available, and cost-effective even in low-income settings. The cancer detection platform inspired by barcodes satisfies all three goals and is one of several diagnostic tests Al-Sulaiman has worked on. The tests she has developed are all based on the detection of cancer-specific microRNA in cancer patients’ samples.

“There is a whole panel of microRNAs that gets dysregulated with every cancer type,” explains Al-Sulaiman. This creates a unique microRNA expression in the patient’s blood, spelling out what type of cancer the patient has. The barcode diagnostic turns the amounts of different microRNAs in a patient sample into a bright fluorescent signal on a pattern of dots. Just like a barcode, each line of dots encodes for a different cancer biomarker, so the combined information from all the lines, so-called “multiplexing,” gives more accurate clinicopathological information. This tool can be designed such that only one sample is needed to test for many types of cancer.

On a Zoom webinar near the end of her time at MIT this spring, Al-Sulaiman demonstrated how a standard microscope can be configured and designed to fabricate such a diagnostic test. The materials used for creating these tests include affordable and biocompatible polymers called hydrogels patterned on fibrous substrates like those we use in everyday life, including glass fiber, silk, and paper.

“We used a very elegant technique called projection lithography to create microscopic sensing dots with defined shapes and sizes. The same way one can stamp any shape on a piece of paper, UV light through a microscope can ‘stamp’ or create spots of hydrogels on many kinds of materials,” explains Al-Sulaiman. At every level the test has been designed for simple communication, just like Al-Sulaiman learned from her aunt.

Al-Sulaiman also focused on communication skills during her postdoc with Doyle through the IBK fellowship. “Pat has a history of successful entrepreneurship and startup development,” says Al-Sulaiman of her time with the Doyle group. “I wanted to learn that from him.” She also learned how to pitch to investors and communicate to lay audiences through MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation.

While at MIT, Al-Sulaiman participated in the Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program through MIT’s Teaching + Learning Center. These entrepreneurial and teaching skills will be put to use when Al-Sulaiman develops her own research group this fall, as a faculty member at one of Saudi Arabia’s premier research institutions, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

“Family has always been a source of great inspiration and strength,” says Al-Sulaiman of the decision to take the position at KAUST. “Although I consider myself a global citizen, I have a big proportion of my family that is from that region, so I wanted to be closer to family and I wanted to bring what I learned home to give back to my community.”

“It’s normal to see a female scientist”

As one of only a handful of Saudi nationals with faculty appointments at KAUST, Al-Sulaiman is in a unique position to build the type of inclusive research culture she wants to develop in her lab.

“KAUST is so international and multicultural, you feel like you’re living in a global community,” says Al-Sulaiman. The main research interest for her lab will be designing and developing biosensing technologies and materials for health-care applications, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and skin diseases. She hopes to collaborate with researchers across all disciplines whose research also aims to impact people’s health care.

Reflecting back on her time at MIT, Al-Sulaiman says, “One of the important things I took away from my time at MIT, especially during the peak of the Covid crisis, is that persistence and passion are key factors for driving research, and that for a successful lab, students and postdocs must be able to communicate easily and effectively. Creating that environment is going to be key for me.”

Al-Sulaiman’s vision of living out her great aunt’s legacy extends to her whole community. She plans to demonstrate science experiments at local schools to help inspired young people to join the scientific community.

“I’m hoping to create an image in young people’s minds that it’s normal to see a female scientist or engineer,” she adds.



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