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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK
Mirrors 'could monitor tumour growth'
The mirror could supercede blood tests as a health-check device
The mirror could supercede blood tests as a health-check device
Silicon mirrors could one day sit under the skin and help doctors keep track of cancers.

Instead of a blood test at a check-up, patients might be able simply to have the mirror "scanned" with an infra-red beam for signs of the re-emerging disease.

The mirrors are one of a number of developments from a scientific company which has created a form of silicon - usually found in computers - which is compatible with the body.

They could one day be used to monitor cancer patients who are believed to be clear of tumours to give early indications of any recurrence of the cancer, reports the New Scientist journal.

But the Cancer Research Campaign said the science was at a very early stage, and would need to be "better than the blood test" to be of any use.


It would have to be better than the blood test to be any good.

Kate Law,
Cancer Research Campaign

It would be at least seven years before the mirror could be in clinical use.

The porous silicon used in the mirrors is biocompatible and biodegradable, which means it should cause no side effects while it is in the body, and when it disintegrates.

It differs from silicon because it has been treated under special acid conditions which makes it porous.

Silicon is not the same material as silicone, from which breast implants are made.

Implants

The mirrors would be implanted just under the skin.

Certain cancers, such as prostate and colorectal release a specific chemical marker into the blood as they develop which indicate how advanced the tumour growth is.

The scientists behind the idea say chemicals could be implanted into the silicon mirrors, which could be around 5mm wide and 0.5mm thick, which would latch onto the cancer chemicals.

Using an infra-red laser beam, doctors would be able to assess the reflected light from the mirror, which would change according to the amount of the cancer marker picked up, on a computer.

Dr Roger Aston, of pSiMedica, the Malvern, Worcestershire based company which developed the idea, told BBC News Online: "When we make the silicon porous, it becomes a highly-reflective mirror.

"This is still a way from being useful clinically."

But he said: "If cancer patients have been given the all clear, you could find in say three years time, it comes back, and you want that diagnosed as early as possible, but you wouldn't want to come in for a blood test every week.

"But you could have someone shine a light on a mirror."

The mirrors would break down into silicic acid, which the scientists say is harmless.

Drug delivery

The company is also looking at the use of the silicon for releasing drugs into the body.

It could allow doctors to give more drugs than normal via patches stuck on the skin

Dr Aston likened the form of the porous silicon to that of a stiff brillo pad, made up of incredibly fine wires.

He said drugs could be carried in the "air pockets".

Dr Aston also suggested tiny electronic circuits could be added to porous silicon to give controlled doses of drugs through the skin.

He said the technology "opened up all sorts of possibilities", including the potential use of biodegradable circuits to repair nerve damage.

A further use could be using the porous silicon to replace metal pins used in orthopaedic surgery to enable broken bones to knit together.

The silicon would biodegrade. Currently, patients have to have any unnecessary metal removed in a second operation.

Stephen Mather, head of nuclear medicine at St Bart's Hospital, London, said: "It sounds a nice idea, but they'll have to show they can get a good signal out of this when it starts binding to the markers.

"It'll also be interesting to see if they can make this more sensitive than the current blood tests."

Kate Law, of the Cancer Research Campaign, said she thought patients were happy to be monitored via a blood test every six months or a year.

She added: "This has got a long way to go. It seems very gimmicky at the moment. It would have to be better than the blood test to be any good."

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