MIT Creates Optical Sensor to Track Zinc in Cells

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An optical sensor designed by chemists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tracks zinc levels to gain insight on prostate cancer.

A new optical sensor created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) tracks zinc within cells and should help researchers learn more about its functions in cancerous cells, the university said in a press release. Measuring zinc levels may lead to a diagnostic test for early detection of prostrate cancer.  

The sensor, which can be targeted to a specific organelle within the cell, is added to cells in a laboratory dish and fluoresces when it binds to zinc, allowing scientists to determine where the metal is concentrated. The MIT chemists who designed the sensor have already used it to shed light on why zinc levels, normally high in the prostate, drop dramatically in cancerous prostate cells.

“We can use these tools to study zinc trafficking within prostate cells, both healthy and diseased. By doing so we’re trying to gain insight into how zinc levels within the cell change during the progression of prostate cancer,” says Robert Radford, an MIT postdoc who led the project and who is an author of the paper describing the sensors, which appears in the December 9th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Radford works in the lab of Stephen Lippard, the Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry and senior author of the paper. The paper’s lead author is Wen Chyan, a 2013 MIT graduate. 


Researchers in Lippard’s laboratory are now working on exploiting similar fluorescent sensors to develop a diagnostic test for early detection of prostate cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men, but is considered treatable if caught early enough.

A recent article published in Pharmaceutical Technology discusses other sensor technologies, including implantable and ingestible sensors that are being used to track and predict disease.