Johns Hopkins researchers have created a synthetic protein that, when activated by ultraviolet light, can guide doctors to places within the body where cancer, arthritis and other serious medical disorders can be detected. The technique could lead to a new type of diagnostic imaging technology and may someday serve as a way to move medications to parts of the body where signs of disease have been found.
The synthetic protein developed by the Johns Hopkins team does not zero in directly on the diseased cells. Instead, it binds to nearby collagen that has been degraded by various health disorders. Collagen, the body’s most abundant protein, provides structure and creates a sturdy framework upon which cells build nerves, bone and skin. Some buildup and degradation of collagen is normal, but disease cells such as cancer can send out enzymes that break down collagen at an accelerated pace. It is this excessive damage, caused by disease, that the new synthetic protein can detect, the researchers said.