Engineering Contributions to Oncology

Written by Joud Alnamnakani

4/26/20223 min read

With technological advances, the fields of health and medicine have developed greatly. Specifically, oncology (the study of cancer) has flourished in terms of diagnosis and treatment. Oncology has three main areas: medical, surgical and radiation. Of course, high-precision devices and drugs constructed by engineers have sought to help cancer patients through their treatment period as efficiently and safely as possible.

In the past, cancer was diagnosed by its shape and size. Yet, over time, scientists have taken a different approach-- detection of biomarkers. What are biomarkers? Simply put, they are biological molecules that act as indicators of normal or abnormal behaviors in the human body. By focusing the search for cancerous cells on these specific molecules, oncologists are able to target and destroy the carcinogenic cells whilst sparing the healthy cells. Furthermore, the state of a biomarker can reflect the severity of a disease. Microfluidic platforms, such as microfluidic protein chips, have the potential to be considered low-cost and fast-analysis diagnosis methods through the detection of biomarkers.

There are many ways of diagnosing cancer, for example, physical exams, laboratory tests such as blood and urine tests, biopsies, and/or imaging tests that can be performed on the patient. Engineering tools have contributed greatly to imaging tests such as PET (positron emission tomography) scans, CT (computerized tomography) scans, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), ultrasound, and x-ray tests. For instance, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), introduced in 1977, has been used more frequently, as this technique is a safe option and does not use radiation. The MRI scanner is composed of a magnet that is able to detect the levels of water in different tissues of the body through magnetic fields. Since the human body is mostly composed of water, MRI scanners are able to capture detailed images due to the spinning activity of hydrogen protons in water. Applications of MRI scanners are mostly seen in the brain, and through this technology, physicians are offered deeper insight into the structure and functions of the brain, and therefore, the abnormalities that could appear in brain activity.

The feasible options for treatment depend on the type of cancer diagnosed. The tumor could be surgically removed, exposed to radiation using radiation therapy, or treated medically through immunotherapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy. Chemical engineers have paved the way for treatments such as chemotherapy and targeted therapy. In these cases, their role is to manufacture the drugs that are used in targeting and destroying cancerous cells in patients.

Depending on the type of cancer and the location of the tumor, the drugs can be delivered in many ways, such as IV delivery in chemotherapy, where they are inserted through a needle or catheter tube in a vein. Chemotherapy drugs can be divided into various categories, including alkylating agents, anti-metabolites, and plant alkaloids. Alkylating agents target the DNA of the cancerous cells, killing cells in all phases of the cell cycle.

A compelling example of an alkylating agent is platinum-containing carboplatin: which is used to treat ovarian cancer as well as other types of cancer such as lung and esophageal cancers. Carboplatin binds to the body’s DNA, which can cause the fragmentation of DNA or halt DNA synthesis. In general, anti-cancer drugs are given as a combination, and chemotherapy may be used in a combination of different treatments to maximize effectiveness.

Overall, from biomedical engineering to chemical engineering advances, the processes of detection and treatment of cancer have aided the oncology field tremendously. Having seen far-reaching results, scientists hope to build on these innovations to further benefit cancer patients in the future.